SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The school committee reaffirmed its commitment to the Stage II Necessity of School Construction application on Tuesday night, which seeks to relocate the high school to Curtis Corner.
While the town council could not in good conscience move forward with placing the $85 million bond item on the November ballot, given the current economic climate and state of uncertainty, school committee member Jacy Northup asked this item be placed on the agenda after sensing a lack of unity behind the plan.
Northup, who also serves as the secretary of the school building committee, said it doesn’t feel like the entire committee is “100 percent sure this is the direction we’re going in.”
“Sitting at that table it doesn’t feel like everyone’s 100 percent,” Northup said. “It doesn’t feel like everyone’s sure. It feels like they think we might still revisit Columbia Street.”
“I think they’re looking to us for a little more guidance and maybe just an affirmation of the fact that yes, this is the road we chose and this is the path we want,” she added.
Although the school committee already committed to plans for high school at Curtis Corner in January, Northup voiced strong support for reaffirming this decision – even if it wasn’t legally necessary. A memorandum, she suggested, would make the direction of this application clear to the school building committee and community.
The plans for facility improvements will not be ready for submission to the Rhode Island Department of Education until September, but looking at the current information, Northup is confident that “It’s a great, bold and visionary plan.”
Although several of the school committee members expressed disappointment that this question would not be going before the voters in November, they understood the decision that the council had come to the previous evening.
“I’m disappointed that the bond won’t be on the November ballot, however, I really understand the predicament we’re all in,” said school committee member Emily Cummiskey. “I’m not disappointed about the vote, just where we are.”
“The opportunity to have the bond on the November ballot would have, statistically and historically speaking, ensured that we would have heard from the most voters possible,” she added. “The disappointment is that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and that’s changed things.”
The best thing the school building committee can do now, she said, is communicate the plans for a new high school to the public as clearly as possible.
School Committee Vice Chair Sarah Markey expressed a similar sentiment, but said she was already waiting for a bond question given the difficult times many families are facing.
“I’m happy to wait, but I don’t think the bond election not being in November changes any of our commitments to the actual plan,” Markey said. “Our facilities’ needs don’t go away. They’re there, they’re consistent and again, I’m having a hard time understanding where the breakdown is.”
Superintendent Linda Savastano stressed that delaying the vote until the spring, or even later, will not put any holes in how the Stage II application is progressing now, however.
“We are full-steam ahead on State II,” Savanstano said. “I don’t want to lose momentum at all, and I feel like everyone I’ve had a conversation with says the same thing.”
While the school committee can’t be sure about what next spring will look like, Markey said she hoped it looks better than November.
One silver lining to having the bond question held back, Savastano said, is that voters will know whether or not the project has approval from RIDE.
Provided that the committee will not have any solid cost estimates to dive into until the Stage II application is finished, school committee member Kate Macinanti, who also sits on the school building committee, pointed out that they went into this knowing this might not be a done deal. The final budget numbers might not be in the realm of affordability for the community, and plans might need to change at that point.
The same thing “could happen at Columbia Street if we took a roof off and discovered a catastrophe,” Savastano said. “We would have to rethink how we’ll move forward. That’s always on the table, but that being said, we can’t have our feet in two different camps.”
She feels confident in the plan, and provided that it meets all necessary approvals and guidelines, that reimbursement funding from the state will be available.
After having weekly meetings with Christine Lopes Metcalfe of the School Building Authority, Savastano has been reassured that there’s never been “a situation where the dollars have been promised and approved, that district met the appropriate criteria, and then they weren’t paid.”
“They were always paid the amount of money they were supposed to be paid,” she said.
Reiterings the words spoken by Councilwoman Deb Kelso the previous evening, the school facilities plan was not all wanted, but a number of serious needs.
Macinanti had been one of the voices of concern with moving full-steam ahead last week, though she was in favor of piecing out projects individually and deciding which are absolutely necessary.
Even though this might be seen as “nickel and diming,” Macinanti was not in favor of moving on anything in the plans that’s unnecessary.
“I’m not saying we have fluff, I’m not suggesting that,” she said. ”I’m just saying maybe we should look at the priority three list and say ‘Okay, maybe this $2 million charge can wait 10 years and be put into a capital improvement plan.’”
After having spent so much time and money on the Stage II application, Northup stressed that the vibe at the school building committee table shouldn’t be that of a “split team.”
“The only way this project is going to move forward successfully is if we’re not a split team, but a cohesive group working towards the same goal,” she said.
If the Stage II application fails to gain approval from the state, the building committee will be able to tweak it’s plans, she said. But if the bond fails to gain approval, like the school bond in Westerly this past fall, the school committee would be starting all over from scratch.
Michelle Brousseau was the only school committee member to vote against the reaffirming memorandum.