alewis@ricentral.com

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Members of the town council and school committee sat down for a joint work session on Tuesday night to discuss the school capital improvement program, which could be going out to bond later this year.

“What drives the capital improvement program for the next six years is the school facilities project,” Town Manager Robert Zarnetske said. “It’s the largest project in the capital improvement program.”

There are no final cost estimates available as of date, according to Zarnetske, and the project itself is in flux.

“This is a very big project for the Town of South Kingstown,” he added. “We’re trying to get this right. We’re trying to make sure we define the project in a way that’s going to meet the needs of the students and, at the same time, meet the needs of the community.”

It’s been a daunting task, Zarnetske said, but he believes the town is getting closer to the end.

Superintendent Linda Savastano echoed Zarnetske’s comments on the onset of the district’s capital improvement presentation, stressing the amount of time, energy, thought and care that’s been going into this work.

“We’re talking about a long-term future,” Savastano said. “This is a commitment and a responsibility, and we need to be very thoughtful as we work through it.”

Plans to move the high school to the Curtis Corner site by building an addition or renovating the current Columbia Street location, have been budgeted at $50 million by the school committee. At a minimum, however, the district will be eligible for 35 percent reimbursement from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), according to Chief Financial Officer Maryanne Crawford. 

The district may be eligible for as much as 50 percent reimbursement, Crawford said. Some areas of reimbursement include health and safety, replacement, newer and fewer schools, increased utilization and educational enhancements. 

Since May 2017, the district has been working with RGB Architects to create a comprehensive, long-term, 20-year education and facilities plan. In the absence of a superintendent and a clear vision last school year, the building committee decided to not submit a Stage II Necessity of Schools application. Instead, the building and school committee decided upon a February 2020 submittal date. 

It was Savastano, who came on board as superintendent at the start of the school year, who after talking with stakeholders throughout the community, proposed looking into the feasibility of a high school at Curtis Corner. The school committee approved the exploration of this option in November. 

Although numbers will not be available until next week, members of the school building committee were able to look at plans for a Curtis Corner addition on Wednesday morning. The presentation from RGB Architects landed well with the committee and the audience present.

Apart from the major renovations or significant renovations proposed, Crawford also presented the district’s proposed pay-as-you-go capital expenses. Items on this list included things like computer replacements, custodial machinery and the replacement of a maintenance vehicle. 

Looking to the next year, the proposed capital budgets of the schools and the town are very small, Zarnetske said. 

The six-year capital improvement program may pose some significant challenges to the community, though, he said. 

Six years from now, between increased debt service payments and increased tax rates, the average household could be paying $1,500 or $2,200 more in taxes, according to Zarnetske. 

“I think, at the end of the day, the project as it’s been conceived, is doable — but it isn’t going to be easy to do,” he said. “It is going to carry some burdens.”

The compounding tax effect could be felt heavily by some residents, especially those on a fixed income, he said, and decisions need to be made collaboratively between all parties in town. 

Going into this budgeting season, Zarnetske said the community must figure out how to challenge other people’s ideas without demoralizing them.

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