Could Warwick really see the construction of a brand-new high school in the near future?
It’s a conversation that, amidst the dreary fiscal reality that played out over the summer that nearly made school sports and after school activities a casualty of budget cuts, seemed wholly unfeasible – but now multiple sources have confirmed that such a conversation is actively occurring in Warwick.
Sources, including Superintendent Philip Thornton, confirmed that multiple “informal” meetings have taken place between school department administrators, members of the school committee, members of the Warwick City Council and Mayor Joseph Solomon regarding the possibility of constructing a new high school at the site of the current Pilgrim High School, which would be demolished to make room for new sports fields.
The plan, currently, is very much a hypothetical one. The school department is currently in the application process with the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) for reimbursement of $80 million-worth of projects that would occur under a second bond proposal – separate from a $40 million bond that was approved by voters in November of 2018 and has funded critical improvement projects at certain schools throughout the past summer.
The school department would, in theory, need to amend its new bond request from RIDE, which was submitted in September – and then gain acceptance from the City Council – in order for the district to be eligible to receive funding reimbursement from the state, which would make or break any notion of new construction.
The city is eligible for at least 35 to 40 percent in reimbursement from the state on capital construction school projects, but that rate could max out at 52.5 percent with the fulfillment of certain incentives, which can encompass everything from the size of the school to the implementation of energy efficient components within the new building.
Thornton said on Monday that the necessary next step in determining whether the school would be seeking an amendment to the application with RIDE would be for the school committee to approve the hiring an educational consultant who would examine where a new school would make the most sense in Warwick, and what that school would look like in order to fulfill state requirements and maximize the reimbursement rate.
Thornton said that could happen as early as the committee’s next meeting on October 15 but as of now, no official steps have been taken towards a new school building.
“Nothing has moved forward,” Thornton clarified, but also added that, “I think there is an interest in fixing some of the current buildings along with exploring building new.”
City Council President Steve Merolla, whom sources confirmed has been privy to such recent conversations, confirmed that interest as well.
“At some point in time you reach the useful life expectancy of buildings where you're throwing good money after bad, because you can’t keep up with repairs to keep a building running,” he said during an interview on Friday. “Any time I've been asked about it, I've encouraged it.”
Merolla said the possibility of receiving half the money necessary for a new school from the state is a “unique opportunity” that would also possibly generate opportunities for new income – such as renting out new playing fields to outside entities. He also feels a new school building would serve as an economic catalyst for a city that could really use one.
“I think the community needs a shot in the arm,” he said.
Still, Merolla said there were “a lot of hurdles” to get through before any new construction would start, and that a detailed analysis would need to be performed prior to any votes in favor or against occurring.
“I've encouraged people to look at that and see what the numbers that come back are,” he said. “If we can get a 50 percent match on a new building, that should be a serious consideration for any municipality because the long term costs of repairing these buildings, I think some of them clearly have reached their useful life expectancy, and it doesn’t make sense to keep doing what we're doing.”
One source privy to the conversations told the Beacon that some initial estimates for the cost of a new school hovered around $180 million, but that could fluctuate. If the city received a 50 percent reimbursement rate on such a project, that would leave the city on the hook for $90 million to finance through long-term bonding. There’s no telling how, if this were to come to fruition, it would affect the district’s established plans to repair other aging buildings around Warwick.
According to Marcum LLP, which just completed a five-year financial projection of Warwick that will be broken down during a special meeting of the City Council finance committee on Wednesday evening, the city has a “green” (healthy) rating for long-term bond service debt – which as of FY18 hovers around 2.5 percent of overall expenditures within the city’s budget.
Solomon said he is interested in learning more about the feasibility of building a new high school. He said he is supportive of the idea.