In its joint meeting with the school and building committees last Thursday to discuss a potential $150 million bond referendum surrounding school improvements – including either a projected $125 million high school rebuild or $65 million renovation – the South Kingstown Town Council decided that it is “going to need a little more time” to decide on a vote and move the process forward.  

The town council is scheduled to convene with Town Manager James Manni and town staff tonight, at 6 p.m.

The Town Council in December was briefed on systemwide deficiencies, costs, and remedies to issues that need addressing throughout the school district. This includes the conversation of setting up a referendum for the town to decide what to do with the high school — an aging building that is over half-empty.

Officials estimate that the 1954 building with grades 9-12 would need $49.5 million worth of repairs over the next decade. This is all the while enrollment in the district drops and concerns surrounding affordable housing linger. School officials throughout the surrounding area project enrollment numbers will continue to fall next fiscal year. 

South Kingstown has until December 2023 to take advantage of a 52.5% state-enhanced reimbursement — for new construction or renovations. The town is also assessing a balance for multi-million projects and how much it will bond. This would involve the town borrowing money and later paying it back with interest over several decades.

During last week’s public forum, residents offered their opinions on the matter, with conversation mainly revolving around the need for an improved high school.

Many argued that an up-to-date high school makes a “huge difference” in town attractiveness. Martha Andrew, who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, has three children under 13 years old. She had her kids enrolled in the Wakefield School before it closed and now has all her children in charter schools after “struggling to say yes to that.”

“I would love for them to go to South Kingstown High School,” Andrew said. “And I would love for them to go to an awesome one. Give these children something to be proud of … Taking bits and pieces of an old building and putting lipstick on a pig is not gonna do that. Knock it down … please just do the best that you can for these kids, if you build it, they will come.” 

Andrew added, she is not particularly worried about the current decrease in high school population.

“If the high school is here, people will come back,” Andrew said. “We moved here from Philadelphia for the school district. Then they closed the school that we were going to … it takes money to make money and if it’s not here, nobody’s going to come.”

Resident Paul Brown addressed the declining population and suggested going back to a regional system with Narragansett, in attempt to save taxpayers money.

Town Council Vice President Michael Marran said, although there was discussion in the past, South Kingstown officials haven’t considered it, mainly because it would take “years to put together.”

Councilor Deborah Bergner added, a regionalization would bring on two different state retirement systems, and different bargaining units. Bergner believes this would bring on a “huge problem.”

“We would have to want to do that and there would have to be will from both bodies,” Bergner said.

The Town Council at last week’s meeting discussed funding as a reason why the bond referendum item hasn’t been pushed onto the next step.

School Committee Chair Paula Whitford at last Thursday’s meeting expressed that she feels that talks are “stuck in a time warp,” in regard to figuring out “how we’re going to move forward” and “how people are going to be able to pay.

“I don’t think that’s for the town to figure out — I think it’s for the people,” Whitford said. “It’s for the people to decide whether or not they want to support this bond and I don’t think we can do anymore talking than we’ve already done.”

School committee member Kate McMahon Macinanti, who was also against dragging out talks for another week, said the correct numbers and projections have been presented.

“If we go too high, we won’t pass, but we’ve done incredible work to make sure that the 150 is right,” McMahon Macinanti said. “So, if you go lower, it’s not worth it. We fail, if you go below.”

She added that there is “no other choice” and that officials on the convening boards “have to do it right,” if they want the support of the community.

“It’s so disappointing and disheartening to hear it be pushed off one more time,” McMahon Macinanti said. “Make the decision because we know what the right decision is and let the community vote.”

Councilor Deborah Bergner began to allude to the 2021 voters’ rejection of the town’s proposal for up to $85 million in bonds for a sweep of school facility improvements.

The vote back in 2021, struck down an effort to move the high school from Columbia Street to the Curtis Corner Middle School building, before renovating and expanding it. 

McMahon Macinanti quickly retorted that, at that time, it was a completely different staff of town and school officials.

“There’s certain information revealed to us in executive/closed discussion that we can’t reveal to the public, things that come to light that we, at a time right before a meeting, we’re supposed to vote, we don’t feel comfortable with,” Town Council President Rory McEntee said in response to the school committee. “Though, at this point in time, we appreciate your strong sentiment, we get it, we want the same thing as you … we’re all on the same page, we just need a path to get there. We’re under a tight timeline, we’re almost there, we feel like we’re almost there as to a point where we can vote on this – we can’t do this tonight.”

Town Council officials at the meeting said they don’t want to make any premature decisions.

“When you have a divided presentation to the community, and you say to the community let the people decide, that, to me, doesn’t present the best foot forward,” Bergner said. “I would want it to be a unanimous decision. We want a 5-0, and we want a 7-0, so that the community says ‘you’ve done your due diligence, and I’m willing to get on board’ … That’s the difference; the last time it was divided, and people said, ‘let the community decide, and it went 70-30 and no one thought that was going to go that way — no one. We don’t want that, so, we want to come out with some harmony.”

Officials at the meeting said cost estimates for the high school call for $820-$885 per square-foot. The school building committee is taking a median of $850 per square-foot. Officials expect the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) to reimburse the district for $101 million toward the high school — due to RIDE’s top-out rate for reimbursement “closer to $585 per square-foot.”

The remaining $24 million would not get a reimbursement and would instead be on the town tax rate “built in when we have to raise up the debt service,” officials said. 

“We’re hopeful that legislation will pass that contemplates increasing the amount of reimbursement up to 57.5%,” McEntee said.

The town is confident it would get its 52.5% of reimbursement for the $101 million, officials said. The town qualifies for such reimbursement because of its taxable base and funding formula at 35%. The regulatory statute limits the town at “no more than half of what our base rate is.”

The high school is 230,000 square-feet.

“It’s much bigger than we need, and it’s also described as a Frankenstein — of add-ons and hodgepodge and hallways and stairways to nowhere,” Bergner said. “So, it’s not possible to remove sections of it and maintain that or replace pieces of it. It’s a challenge. And the cost of actually renovating and saving is almost — or as the same — as building a new. So, the cost of renovation to the Frankenstein is the same as building new.” 

Town Manager James Manni last week reviewed the numbers with the three convening boards. If a $150 million school improvement bond project was approved by the council and voters “the Fiscal Year 2025 … the funds needed to be raised for the school bond debt would be $1,260,000,” Manni said. “The tax levy increase would be 3.2%. That would impact — just for the bond — 18 cents on $1,000.”

Manni added, in 2026, funds needed for the school bond debt would be $1,253,000 with a tax levy increase of 3.1%. 2027 would call for $705,000 and a levy increase of 2.42%. 2028 would be $1,578,000 and levy hike of 3.44% and 2029 would call for $1,097,000 with a 2.82% levy increase.

Over that five-year period, for the school bond only, there would be an 84-cent tax increase, for every $1,000 of the assessment, Manni said.

This would cause a 12% tax increase over the five-year period, officials said.

Bergner said, the Town Council’s objective right now revolves around making a decision that is “fair for everybody,” adding that she doesn’t want to shift any burden onto people who are trying to get children to college.

According to officials, 49% of town households earn less than $100,000 annually and 65% of assessed households are coming in at 400K or less. 

“It’s hard, with a lot of unknowns, for me,” Bergner said. “I personally feel very comfortable with the amount of money that RIDE is going to give us 52.5% for; if it’s $102 million for the high school, sign me up. But I want to know how we’re going to cover rest of that gap.”

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