COVENTRY — Two years ago, work got underway to create a plan for improving Coventry’s aging school facilities. Countless hours went into developing an $89 million project proposal; the next step was to get the town council’s OK to let voters weigh in on that proposal during a referendum in the spring.
Last Monday, the Coventry Town Council voted 3-2 against holding a bond referendum to fund the proposed school construction project, with council president Ann Dickson and councilor Kimberly Shockley both in support.
The bond would have touched all seven of the town's schools, but most of it — around $80 million — would have covered a major renovation of Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School.
Built in 1958, the middle school was determined to be the district's neediest building.
“This is a well-developed, well-thought out project that meets a need in this town,” Shockley said before the vote was taken Monday. “That school needs to be totally renovated. That school is not functioning the way our students need it to.”
During a recent visit to the school, where around 1,200 students are enrolled, Shockley and Dickson had the chance to speak with eighth graders about their experiences there.
“There’s a bucket in the hallway to catch water where there’s a leak coming from the ceiling,” Shockley said, recalling what she’d heard that day. “The floors aren’t even — there are places where the tiles are coming up and the floors are buckling.”
Joseph Munir and Abby Murray, students at the middle school, echoed some of those concerns during Monday’s meeting. They also each spoke about the mold that’s been spreading in the classrooms.
“It can get really challenging for some people, especially if they have asthma, to have to breathe that in every day for five days a week,” Munir said, standing at the podium before the council. “To go in and have to learn in this environment, and try to stay focused, and work on a better future for themselves, can be very challenging.”
With the school buildings being in the conditions that they are, Dickson said, the town shouldn't hold off on making improvements.
“Schools are the lifeblood of a community,” Dickson said. “A robust school system draws students and parents into the community.”
The town would realize significant financial benefits from acting now, too.
A temporary school construction program funded by a $250 million statewide bond means that on its proposed $89 million project, Coventry could received $8 million up front, as well as a 57.8 percent reimbursement on its construction costs for meeting several bonus incentives. Without those incentives, the town is eligible to receive 42.8 percent.
Whether or not the project happens isn’t so much a question of affordability, Dickson added, but of community values. And both she and Shockley spoke in favor of giving Coventry's voters the chance to make that call.
“We need to know what the residents’ vision is for their community,” Dickson said.
Councilors agreed that there’s no denying the dire condition of the middle school. But for those who voted “no” Monday, concerns that it would be financially irresponsible to take on such a pricey project — even considering the state’s temporary school construction program — outweighed that.
“The debate on this proposal doesn’t lie with the need for it, but rather financing it,” councilor Hillary Lima said.
Including interest, the total project cost would be $140 million, Town Manager Benjamin Marchant said during a presentation last week, but with the up-front funding and the 57.8 percent state aid reimbursement, the net cost to the town would be $67 million.
In order to afford the debt payments over the 25-year life of the proposed bond while also maintaining operations, Coventry voters would need to approve tax levy increases every single year for years to come.
One budget projection shared with councilors by the town manager and finance director last week showed that if voters were to approve a one-time tax levy increase of 6.8 percent in Fiscal Year 2025 — to go over the 4 percent cap would require state lawmakers to pass special legislation — they would then need to pass a 2.99 percent increase annually between 2026 and 2035. As old debt falls off, the increase needed in 2036 would drop to 2.5 percent; between 2037 and 2050, the levy increase required would vary between 3 and 3.3 percent annually.
Were voters to reject the necessary increases, Marchant said, it could be “a devastating blow to the solvency of the school and town budgets.”
“It’s become abundantly clear that there are so many aspects that need to go right in order for this bond to happen,” Lima said, “and for debt payoff to be properly funded, not just in the first year, but over the course of the life of the bond.”
Coventry’s fiscal health was a concern brought up by several councilors.
Right now, the town’s outstanding liabilities total $243 million; it currently has a negative net position of $136 million due to those excess liabilities.
The school building committee was charged with developing a school construction project, councilor James LeBlanc said, and it did that. But, he said, the committee should have been asked to come up with a financially responsible plan that takes into account all of the town’s needs.
The town has a lot of facility needs, Lima added, and the proposed bond would “essentially tie the hands of future leadership over the next two decades.”
According to the presentation last week, the town would be using all but 8 percent of its available credit by taking on the proposed bond. That would improve slightly each year, but it could leave the town without options in the event of an emergency.
“The main concern that I have is that putting on a bond this large would basically put us at the 90 percent lending capacity,” Jennifer Ludwig, council vice president, said Monday. “Realistically, we couldn’t do anything else in town for, what, 15 years? For me, that’s too large.”
LeBlanc added that he would have liked to have been presented with multiple construction options so that the town council could choose which of them to put to voters.
Councilors also shared concerns about the project’s focus being largely on just school, when there are extensive needs in every one of the town’s school buildings.
In addition to the work at the middle school, the proposal included $4 million in renovations at Coventry High School. Among the elementary schools, $1.8 million was proposed to be spent at Western Coventry, the oldest of the district’s buildings; $1.2 million at Tiogue; $1.1 million at Blackrock; $850,000 at Hopkins Hill; and $400,000 at Washington Oak.
As she wrapped up her comments on the matter, Lima said she’d like the town to “think bigger.”
“Let’s work together on a plan that not only provides state-of-the-art facilities to our youth of all grades and ages,” she said, “but also allows the town to make considerable headway on our existing debt, finds creative ways to increase revenue to the town to ease the burden on our tax base, positions us to tackle infrastructure and capital improvement issues… and sets our town up on a path to success.”
The road to this week’s vote had been a long one.
Beginning with a series of visioning sessions, a school building committee was established, a letter of intent was submitted to the state, and the district’s needs and then solutions for addressing those needs were identified in two lengthy applications that both ultimately were approved the state Department of Education Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.
The plan that the school building committee — chaired by school committee member Luke Murray — moved forward with was selected out of multiple scenarios presented by the architectural firm StudioJAED.
Following the vote, Amy Anzalone, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Coventry Public Schools and a member of the building committee, took the podium to express her disappointment in the council’s decision.
Anzalone called it “incredibly irresponsible” not to fix the school buildings, the conditions of which she called “embarrassing.”
“I’m sad for our students, our families and our teachers,” she said during the meeting’s public comment period. “I’ve been in the district for over 33 years, and I can’t believe that this is the decision that our town council has made, not to bring it to the voters.”