Community forum mostly draws supporters, few dissenting voices

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The School Building Committee held a community forum on Wednesday night to present its proposed facilities plan and take comments one final time before the special election. 

On Tuesday, South Kingstown residents will finally answer the $85 million question of whether to stay at Columbia Street or relocate the high school to Curtis Corner. And while many community members have already cast their vote via mail or emergency ballot, it’s still anyone’s guess as to which way the vote will go when the polls close. 

For months, the school facilities plan has been hotly debated among community members, and as the special election date draws nearer and nearer, tensions seem to only be on the rise. 

While much of the presentation from school officials and committee members focused on the building plans, timelines and costs associated with the project, School Building Committee Chair Melissa Towle took a few moments to address the divide within the community. 

“This is a big project,” Towle said. “It’s multifaceted, it’s complicated. There’s a lot of moving parts. And the level that we’re at is about 20 percent design development, so there’s a lot of work ahead of us, a lot of decisions to be made and to be worked out if this project continues. If that’s the decision of the community.” 

“I just want to acknowledge that the concerns that are out there are real and legitimate, and we don’t necessarily sit here having all the answers,” she added.

Towle has sat on the school building committee for three years now, and during that time, she was the only member who was neither an elected official or town employee. As the lone community member on the committee, her professional background in educational and green design brought a lot to the table. And as a professional in this field, looking at all the work that’s been done since she first joined the committee, Towle said she has confidence in the plan that’s going before the community. 

“I think this is a good plan, educationally,” Towle said. “I’m excited about this.” 

What’s exciting for some, she realizes, has given others pause for concern. In a site as beautiful as Curtis Corner, those questioning the plan have worried a high school relocation could ruin both the atmosphere and the environment of the park. 

“As someone who has a background in sustainability, I get that there’s concern about Curtis Corner, and that we really respect that site,” Towle said. “We want to surround ourselves with people of a high level of expertise, both educationally, and for an architectural point of view, a sustainable point of view — and make sure we get this right.”  

“While there is great potential in a positive light, we also realize there’s potential to make mistakes,” she continued. “Some of that is inevitable, because we’re all human beings, but I think that any risk we can mitigate, we want to mitigate.”

Going forward, no matter which way the vote goes, the school building committee is looking to make some changes — from hiring a new architecture firm, to adding more community members from a variety of backgrounds onto the committee. 

“We realize there’s disunity in our community right now over this issue, and I don’t know how to bridge that gap, but I hope that we can come up with solutions for that as well,” she said. 

While the vast majority of community members who provided comments or asked questions of school officials after the presentation were in favor of the project, there were a small handful of community members opposed to the plan. 

Community member Greg Sweet acknowledged comments made from other residents about state reimbursement funds the town could be missing out on — to the tune of $12.5 million — if this doesn’t go forward, but would rather “lose out” than invest in the wrong plan.

“Most, if not all, of that $12.5 million will not be spent on the building,” Sweet said. “It’ll be spent on the access road to South Road, the parking lots. There’s a lot of that $12.5 million that will be eaten up, so it’s not as big of a bonus at Curtis Corner as it would be at Columbia Street.”

“All of that $12.5 million would go into the building at Columbia Street,” he added. 

Superintendent Linda Savastano interjected with the comment that $30 million would need to go into updates and repairs at the current high school, however, and not touch teaching and learning. Where those $12.5 million are going and how the district would reap the benefit of those dollars is a much more in-depth conversation, she said. 

One of the main arguments for relocation has been more flexibility options when it comes to designing teaching and learning spaces. 

Though it did not come up in discussion on Wednesday, another topic of concern among those opposed to the plan is that while in pursuit of creating these flexible spaces at a new location, the district will be spending a lot of money to duplicate facilities already at Columbia Street — like an auditorium, gymnasiums or a media center. 

The $85 million investment is a glaring number for many, and there are those who worry those funds won’t live up to it’s promise, or that debt service payment will only continue to make South Kingstown more unaffordable. 

Others see the investment in education as a no-brainer. 

Community member Ryan McNally pointed out that those debt service payments for the average homeowners in South Kingstown will break down to about $17 per month. 

“I really hope, hearing this presentation, that $17 per month, on average for a typical house in this town, will not stop anybody in South Kingstown from investing in our youngest citizen,” McNally said. “I think we’ve got an amazing opportunity to basically get free money from the state, that at some point, some other town in Rhode Island will have gobbled up if we don’t take advantage of it.” 

Those who don’t understand how anyone could vote against an additional $17 per month, on average, don’t understand the plight of those living on a fixed income, though, according to community member Ann Hazelwood. 

“I would just invite people to think about how dismissive it is to those who might hold a different point of view, when some of these comments are directed against those who feel as compassionate as you do, but on the other side of the fence,” Hazelwood said. 

“For someone to say, ‘I hope when the bond passes we can all work together,’ is extremely dismissive to people who have a different point of view,” she added. 

She thanked members of the committee for letting her speak, though expressed prior doubts that she would even be allowed to say anything since many of the comments that evening were in favor of passing the bond. 

School Committee Chair Emily Cummiskey stated that the school building committee has no intention of baring anyone from sharing their opinions, or asking questions, and stressed that criticism from concerned community members has helped to strengthen the plan. Some of the criticism, she noted, earlier in the process was from people who wanted to see the high school relocated. 

“Hearing criticism is really important,” Cummiskey said. “It’s a part of this process, and if we do move forward, hearing from diverse voices and different points of view is exactly what we need.” 

“I appreciate the criticism,” she added. “Sometimes it’s hard to hear, but it helps to be more thoughtful about the direction we’re going.” 

She also made comments addressing the costs associated with that project that evening, and as the chair of the Welcome House’s board of directors, she realizes the dollars invested in this project, for many, isn’t easy come, easy go. While South Kingstown may be perceived as a “well off” community, there are many who are struggling, she said — especially now. 

Spending this money, Cummiskey said, is to ensure students in the district have the best possible opportunities going forward. 

And while community members like Jim Blackerby and Darren Austin both voiced their support for the plan that evening, they were concerned with how one sided the discussion seemed to be that evening.

Austin expressed concerns about how much of an echo chamber the forum seemed to be, and encouraged people to reach out to their friends, family and neighbors to talk about the special election.

“Not everyone’s following this that closely,” Austin said. “If you look at previous turnouts, I’ve heard from some folks that the voter turnout is pretty low.”

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