For months, the Meadowbrook Farms Elementary School repair dilemma has vexed the School Committee.
On Monday night, the Town Council faced its turn, with a divided council deciding it needed two more weeks to ponder that and other school-related repair issues totaling $3.8 million.
On a 3-2 vote, the council tabled the School Committee’s recommendation to spend nearly $3.8 million in bond surplus funds on replacing aging roofs at Meadowbrook, East Greenwich High School and Frenchtown Elementary School, and upgrade technological capabilities at the high school.
The council is expected to take it up again at its next scheduled meeting Feb. 14.
Councilman Michael S. Kiernan, who attended Meadowbrook in the early ‘70s, led the questioning of whether roof repair at the school, which also has flooring and HVAC problems, is a smart use of some of the $6.2 million in surplus funds from the $52 million school bond approved by the town’s voters in 2008 for construction of a new Cole Middle School and work on the town’s other schools. The surplus comes from lower-than-expected construction bids and increased state reimbursement.
“We’re going beyond the scope of the referendum, exceeding the bounds of what people voted for. We should think about this a little more before we spend that money,” said Kiernan, who was joined by President Michael B. Isaacs and Jeffrey B. Cianciolo in voting to table the matter.
School Committee Vice Chairman Robert Durant, holding up a copy of the wording of the bond on the 2008 ballot, disputed Kiernan’s interpretation.
“The language says you’re going to build a new middle school and fix and repair other schools. That’s not going above and beyond the referendum. If not with this bond, we’re going to come back to the council and say we need to put roofs on these buildings,” Durant said.
Council Vice President Henry V. Boezi and Mark Watkins Gee voted against the majority.
After the meeting, Kiernan said the building’s problems date back to his days at a pupil.
“This building has never worked. They’ll fix the roof, and they’ll be back in two years,” he said, suggesting the flooring and HVAC problems be fixed first, or that the School Committee “raze the building.”
The School Building Committee recommended last month that the School Committee pursue a nearly $4 million plan for Meadowbrook that included the roof, HVAC and cracking floor tiles, caused by seeping moisture from below and humid air circulating through the building. The School Committee opted last week to pursue a roof-only repair for now.
Kiernan also questioned an enrollment study commissioned by the district in November concluding that it didn’t have enough student capacity to close Meadowbrook without having to build another school. The district has 2,419 students enrolled as of Monday, school Superintendent Victor Mercurio told the council.
“We had similar population with three K-through-6 schools when I was in school, and Hanaford (Elementary School) was an administrative building. And we weren’t putting sixth-graders in the middle school like we will now,” Kiernan said.
Boezi and Gee, however, felt the Meadowbrook roof could not wait any longer.
“We’ve heard the presentation,” said Boezi, also a member of the building committee. “This is the price you pay when you get the (construction bid) price down. You’re going to be paying double or triple if you wait.”
“I don’t feel studying this for another two weeks will change anything,” said Gee. “Where’s the money gonna come from? If it’s not coming from what’s left over, is it coming from higher taxes, or going out for another bid?”
Isaacs and Cianciolo indicated they would likely support the school board’s recommendation, but felt it needed further study.
“Some people voting for the bond voted to spend that money, and some voted in the belief that if there savings they’d be returned to the town,” said Isaacs. “I want to understand the financial ramifications and exactly where we stand after taking these votes.
“I support what’s on the table,” said Cianciolo, “but out of an abundance of caution, I’d rather give everyone the chance to consider it further.”
School Committee Chairwoman Deidre Gifford was disappointed that the council did not share her urgency in getting the roof repairs started after hearing the case from her, Mercurio and Jonathan Winokur, construction manager on the bond project. Nonetheless, she anticipated their eventual approval.
“It’s clear the council supports it, but I think it’s unfortunate they didn’t ask for any additional information. I take them at their word that they just need more time for it to sink in and fully evaluate it,” she said.
Also, the council voted unanimously to draft a letter to Gov. Lincoln Chafee asking him to retain Deborah Gist as the state’s education commissioner. Gist, appointed by former Gov. Donald Carcieri, is under contract for another two years, but Chafee has not indicated whether or not he will retain Gist in his administration.