Johnston's $215 million school bond passes 1,100-178 in Tuesday's special election.
Kayla Brown took her ballot to a secluded voting booth in the middle school gymnasium.
While standing underneath a basketball hoop, she filled in the oval next to “Approve.”
Brown was carrying the future of Johnston with her, in her belly and in the backseat of the car waiting outside. Her 2-year-old son Jack sat in a car seat in the back with Kayla’s mother, Laura Brown.
“My son will go to these schools,” Kalya said while climbing behind the wheel. “And I’m having another in October. Honestly, this will be best for everyone.”
“It’s a benefit to the town,” Laura Brown shouted from the backseat. She planned to cast her vote in favor of the $215 million school bond later Tuesday afternoon.
A slow trickle of Johnston voters turned out to cast ballots from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday in a special referendum on funding for new school construction. Unofficial results were announced around 9 p.m.
Only 5.33 percent, or 1,278 of the town’s 23,980 registered voters, marked ballots.
According to Tuesday night’s uncertified results, 1,100 (or 86.07 percent) voted in favor of a $215 million bond to fund construction of a new Early Childhood Center and Elementary School, and major renovations at the Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School and the Johnston High School. Only 178 voters (13.93 percent) voted to reject the bond.
Tuesday’s vote total may not include early voting and a handful of mail-in ballots.
“With the passing of the bond, the first phase of the construction will be the new elementary school,” said Johnston Public Schools Superintendent Bernard DiLullo Jr. “All schools will remain open as we complete this project.”
The plans call for closing and then eventually demolishing, re-purposing or selling all of the town’s current elementary schools — Graniteville ECC Annex, Barnes, Brown Avenue, Thornton and Winsor Hill. A bigger, consolidated, new elementary school will be built to educate around 1,100 students in grades 1-4, on three floors, and is planned for construction on town property just north of the Johnston High School.
The elementary school is expected to cost an estimated $84,350,000.
“The target for completion is Fall 2024,” DiLullo said. “We anticipate that that will be when students in grades 1-4 move into the new school. At that point the vacated elementary schools will be used as swing space for the ongoing projects.”
The small neighborhood elementary schools will close, and the students will be moved to the town-wide elementary center. If the bond passes, town officials will hold discussions to determine the fate of the old, closed school buildings. They may be torn down or converted into senior housing, according to Mayor Joseph M. Polisena.
Plans call for major renovations at the existing Ferri Middle School and Johnston High School.
“Renovation work at the high school then the middle school will be done on vacation periods and after school hours so that students will not be disrupted during the course of the school day,” DiLullo explained. “Once the new elementary school is completed, the plan is for the demolition of the Sarah Dyer Barnes School and the construction of the Early Childhood Center which will house grades Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten. At this point we are looking forward to the fall of 2025 for all projects to be completed and all students and staff in their updated and new classrooms.”
A new ECC building is expected to cost an estimated $28,600,000.
“I am thrilled for the town and its residents,” said Johnston Town Council Vice-President Joe Polisena Jr. “New schools will help our children succeed in the classroom and raise property values for homeowners. This is the absolute best way to use the revenue from all the new businesses that have come to Johnston over the recent years.”
Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner praised the “86 percent of Johnston voters) who approved the “$215 million proposal to finance the largest modernization of education facilities in the town’s history.”
As co-chairman of the Rhode Island School Building Task Force, Magaziner led the development of a plan to repair or replace Rhode Island's public school buildings. Johnston took advantage of state incentives, and town officials hope to recover more than 50 percent of the project costs via state-funded reimbursements.
Voters approved the statewide school construction program in 2018. According to Magaziner, Rhode Island has already allocated $1.7 billion in funding to repair or replace 189 school buildings across 28 districts in Rhode Island.
The affected schools educate more than 101,800 students annually, and school building and renovation projects have created more than 28,000 jobs, according to Magaziner.
“All students deserve to attend schools that are safe, warm, dry and equipped for 21st-century learning and Rhode Islanders understand that investing in our schools and in our students is how we build a strong economy for the future,” Magaziner said. “High-quality school facilities not only lead to better attendance, reading levels, and test scores, but the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the effect school buildings have on the physical health of students as well.”
The approval of Johnston’s bond will lead to “the closure and consolidation of four elementary schools into one new state-of-the-art school with a new gymnasium, media center, and science and technology labs to support art, music, science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) education,” according to Magaziner. The funding will also help support a “new and expanded career and technical training programming for high school students.”
Magaziner recently introduced legislation (S2596, H7125) with sponsors Sen. Hanna Gallo, (District 27, Cranston, West Warwick), Sen. Sandra Cano, (District 8, Pawtucket), and Rep. Brandon Potter, (District 16, Cranston) “to extend the availability of enhanced state funding for early childhood education facilities, career and technical education facilities, and STEAM facilities.”
This year, Ocean State voters will likely weigh in on a $300 million statewide bond proposal included in the proposed legislation, which “also contains significant new incentives for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements to public school buildings.”
The bill aims to help the state achieve its Act on Climate goals calling for a “net-zero emission economy, in addition to new incentives for school districts to employ local contractors and minority business enterprises on school construction projects,” according to Magaziner’s office.
The Johnston School Committee and Town Council held a pair of special informational meetings, in joint-session, on the evenings of Wednesday, March 16, and Wednesday, March 23, to discuss the proposed school building projects.
Polisena Jr., who has confirmed his candidacy for mayor, said the costs to taxpayers for the bond referendum will be negligible. He helped to developed an overall funding plan, devising a way to do all of the school building projects at once.
Town officials expect new developments in town, and the tax dollars they generate — including the Amazon warehouse under construction along Hartford Avenue — will cover annual bond payments.
“We are affecting every student in Johnston,” DiLullo said at the first informational meeting on March 16. “From pre-Kindergarten, our 3-year-olds, all the way up to our 17-18-year olds. We’re looking forward to that.”
Terence Ketchel, poll moderator for the two precincts voting inside the Ferri Middle School gymnasium, looked around the empty gym with concern. It was 10 a.m., and after two hours, only 18 people had cast ballots in the gym.
“I wish people would pay attention,” he said.
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