Are Warwick voters prepared to support an $85 million bond issue to upgrade its aging schools, or would they want to upgrade schools to aspirational standards suggested by the State Department of Education at a cost of almost $118 million?
And yet there is a third option – might voters not support school building improvements at either level? Might they say no to improving existing schools or willing to spend much more to build news schools?
The School Committee and the school administration will be looking for direction at a special meeting of the City Council tomorrow night at City Hall.
In order for the School Committee to move ahead with a bond issue of any size, it will need City Council approval. The process doesn’t end there. In order for the bond to appear on the ballot, which will give the voters the final say, it requires legislative approval from the General Assembly.
The school administration is not looking for the City Council to take a vote Wednesday. Rather, school business officer Anthony Ferrucci explained in a recent interview the intent of the meeting is to review the options, define what would be accomplished with each of the proposed bond issues and gauge the direction that would be supported by the council and, next November, the voters. That assessment will then be used by the school building committee on Dec. 5 to draft a recommendation of capital projects. A week later, that plan will come before the School Committee. Once the committee approves a plan it will return to the council in January for its approval.
Adhering to this agenda is important if schools are to meet the Feb. 1, 2018 Stage II deadline for funding from the Rhode Island Department of Education. At its current level, RIDE would fund about 40 percent of approved Warwick school improvements. That funding comes in the form of a reimbursement when the project is completed.
Missing the Feb. 1 deadline could result in sidelining any RIDE sanctioned bond for school improvements and delay a public vote until 2020. On the other hand, meeting the deadline could put a plan on track for legislative consideration and voter consideration on the 2018 November election ballot.
While the February deadline seems close at hand, prioritizing school building upgrades and improvements have been ongoing for more than a year. A school building committee that included representatives from the city drafted the $85 million bond proposal that was tabled when it came before the Council Health/Welfare and Education committee last February. At that time the council wanted to see the RIDE statewide report of school buildings before acting.
In response to the question of cost to the taxpayer, then-City Finance Director Ernest Zmyslinski projected principal and interest payments of an $85 million bond at $6.8 million a year for 25 years. He said with state reimbursement at 40 percent, the annual cost to taxpayers would drop to about $4.1 million. At the current residential tax rate this would result in a 40-cent tax increase, or $80, for a home valued at $200,000.
When the state released its report – the Jacobs Report – the projected cost of Warwick school improvements increased primarily because of the department’s “aspirational” standard of calculating 180 square feet per student. Although not mandated, if Warwick schools apply the standard, it could mean amending its approved plan to consolidate three elementary schools: Wickes, Randall Holden and John Brown Francis. One of the schools would need to remain open, or a new one built, thereby pushing up the cost to the community. That is the $118 million bond the council will hear about tomorrow night.
As Finance Committee Chair Ed Ladouceur has made evident, there promises to be no lack of opinion either about the school administration or the state Department of Education.
“What I’m seeing and hearing is that RIDE is part of the problem,” he said last week. “What they’re putting out are completely unreasonable square footage per student.” He called RIDE’s “aspirational” goals “a total waste of taxpayers’ dollars. No wonder people are mad.”
He didn’t spare the school administration from criticism, too. He called conversion of former Gorton Junior High School into administrative offices an “outrage.” He called it a waste of space and money, saying the administration had more affordable alternatives.