The Warwick School Department will be able to go forward with their request for a bond to repair the city’s aging school buildings, however they will only be eligible to potentially receive less than half of what they originally hoped for, as the Warwick City Council approved an amendment to the department’s request during a special meeting Tuesday evening.
Instead of approving the department’s request to support an $85 million bond referendum to go to the state legislature, Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla proposed an amendment to chop that down to $40 million, with the understanding the department would have to return during the next election cycle in 2020 to ask for the remaining money to continue the school repairs.
“After sponsoring the last bond referendum in 2006, I think we need to exercise a little bit more control and oversight so it’s not every 12 years that we come back; that maybe in this case it’s two years from now that we have a meaningful discussion,” Merolla said.
Merolla had expressed multiple times during the past few meetings regarding the bond that he was worried about “history repeating itself,” referring to a $25 million bond approved in 2006 that promised additions to schools that were ultimately torn down instead, and required a long freeze on releasing the moneys over concerns of paying the debt service during the Great Recession.
“I realize these gentlemen weren’t here,” Merolla said, referring to Superintendent Thornton, finance director Anthony Ferrucci and other members of the current school administration. “I also realize these gentlemen might not be here in a few years. It’s up to this council to exercise its discretion, its knowledge, its will on what happens – not another 12 years from now, but more constantly – and have more input.”
Karen Grande, bond counsel for the city answered many technical questions about the proposed bond. One point in particular she mentioned was that splitting up the large bond into two separate referendums could pose a potential risk.
“I wouldn’t recommend putting the referendum on at different times, because what if the first one passes and improvements get made, then the second one maybe doesn’t pass so that part of town doesn’t get improvements?” she said.
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix agreed about the potential risk of the decision, and was the only council member to vote against the amendment, which passed 8-1.
“I don’t think that Warwick voters are selfish. I think Warwick voters are interested in looking out for their city as a whole,” he said. “However I can see from a voter’s perspective where, say their local school gets fixed up following the initial $40 million bond, and then they don’t see what’s in it for them or their area…so they would be less inclined to vote in favor of that additional bond money.”
However others on the council found the amendment to allow for other potential opportunities in the future.
“The school department is not going to be able to do $85 million worth of repairs in two years,” said Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur. “I doubt that they will be able to do half of that in two years. It’s also clear to me that we do need to do some repairs on some buildings, as I said at the last meeting – the right repairs to the right buildings. It’s also completely clear to me that, in the big picture – the local picture of growing this city and maintaining our status as the second largest city in this state – that we need to build a new school. We may need to build two new schools.”
Council president Joseph Solomon saw the amendment as a trade-off that still left the matter, ultimately, up to the voting citizens of the city.
“This is a fair compromise where I believe the school department can go out to the state and say, ‘Hey, we voiced our plans for a proposal of repairs for council support, but they squeezed that penny. We tried to get as much out of them as we could,’” he said. “I think the main decisive factor now isn’t the council, isn’t the state legislature, isn’t the school department, isn’t the administration – it’s going to be the voters of the city of Warwick…And I think that’s very important.”
While Mayor Scott Avedisian supported the school department's original $85 million bond issue, he was pleased to have the council address the issue of school repairs, even though the amount is less than half of what was proposed. He feels it important, assuming legislative approval of the proposed bond, that the school department identify projects in each of the city's schools to ensure that when the referendum comes before voters in November that they see it as affecting them.
"They need to make a good case to the voters," he said of the department.
Avedisian doesn't believe, however, that it is "an easy sell," as some of the more costly projects such as heating systems and roofs are not seen, yet critical to providing a good learning environment. He said health and safety "are paramount."
Asked whether in fact the schools could address close to everything identified in the $85 million bond, as state-matching funds could be as much as 50 percent, Avedisian said, "that is a gamble."
"We don't know what legislators are going to do," he said.
Avedisian also touched on calls for a new school, as proposed by Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur. He thought a new school bond issue might have difficulty gaining voter approval, as it would benefit one neighborhood rather than the city as a whole.
"You make one neighborhood really happy and the others not," he said.
To reiterate, this action by the city council merely means that the school department can send in their Stage 2 application to RIDE for potential reimbursement for school capital projects. Currently that rate sits at about 40 percent, but if a state bond referendum passes this November for $250 million, that reimbursement could rise to a full 50 percent reimbursement by the state.
For the school to actually get access to this funding, thought, the bond still needs to be approved by the state’s general assembly and then approved by the voters during the November election cycle.
“We’re very appreciative of the city council’s support for $40 million,” said Thornton during a phone interview on Wednesday morning. “That's a good first step in the process of getting our schools where they need to be.”
Thornton said that he and Ferrucci, as well as members of the school building committee, were scrambling to revise their Stage 2 application to reflect what repairs could be included within the new bond amount – which is due to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) by today, Feb. 1. The deadline is one of several important dates for schools to adhere to if they are to qualify for state reimbursement.
Thornton said that they would still prioritize needs based on the most crucial repairs. That means that the 12 fire alarm systems due for replacement would still get fixed, as would roofs, and ADA compliance measures and asbestos abatement would still be enacted.
However Thornton said the $40 million would fall short of completing all the proposed repairs for HVAC systems, and he did not have a specific list of which schools would be excluded from the first bond request and that would be included.
“It looks like the demarcation line would be in the HVAC line,” he said, adding that he would “have to wait to see how it all shapes out” before being able to confirm individual schools that would be affected. The school building committee is planning on putting together a revised, complete list during a 7:30 a.m. meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 6.
Some quick calculations revealed that $40 million would, indeed, be able to take care of the proposed $24,765,317 needed for fire alarms, roofing, ADA improvements and asbestos abatement. However mechanical improvements would add $34,541,988 to those costs, meaning that remaining bond money would only cover seven of the proposed 14 HVAC systems, which, according to the school department, projections cost around $2 million apiece.
Thornton said that the school department would make the best of the situation and release the finalized list of proposed repairs when it was available.
“Hopefully [the state reimbursement percentage] will be the same in two years,” he said. “We got the $40 [million] and that's what we're moving forward on.”
(With reports from John Howell)