SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The application deadline came and went this week, but the town council has hopes of better engaging the community and answering tough financial questions before the next submission deadline in February.
Last year, rather than continuing to press forward with plans for major renovations at the Columbia Street high school, the school building committee switched gears and began looking at the possibility of a high school at Curtis Corner. Although the project includes improvements at all four of the elementary schools and Broad Rock, the high school relocation has taken center stage in the discussion of school facility improvements.
While those who support the project have spoken in favor of a campus-like atmosphere and 21st Century classroom designs, for months, others have pointed to high construction costs and the price community members will have to pay. Unknown financial variables, like the abandonment of Columbia Street or the new operational costs at the other buildings, have also given community members cause for concern.
These unknown variables are a large part of the reason why Councilman Rory McEntee said he couldn’t support pressing forward with the application on Tuesday.
“These improvements are needed, but we need to make sure we get this right,” McEntee said.
As the youngest member of the council, who graduated from South Kingstown High School less than a decade ago, McEntee said “there’s no question of whether or not these improvements are needed, but process is very important.”
He highlighted that on Thursday night, the school building committee also voted in favor of not submitting on Sept. 15 because “they were clearly not satisfied [and] they had unanswered questions.” Although the majority of the school committee voted in favor of a submission, McEntee said he couldn’t support a project running so close against deadlines.
“In my mind, the fact that we’re rushing up to this deadline, don’t have complete information by the Friday before the Monday vote, still don’t have complete information Monday before the vote tonight – that is bad business,” he said. “And I don’t want to be engaged in bad business.”
Due to the packed agenda, public comment did not begin until 10:45 p.m. that night, and by the time the council had their discussion, the vote itself did not come until after 1 a.m. – the official day of submission.
Although comments from the community have been sharply divided in recent weeks as the deadline approached, for those who strongly advocated for better community engagement, the late hour of community comment fed into their points.
“I do believe, just like you all believe, that everything that you have spoken about tonight, that every resident you have heard from tonight and every issue you have heard from tonight is important, [but] this is the largest project the town will ever embark on,” said community member Raissa Mosher. “And it’s 10:45 p.m.”
Like many people, Mosher said she worked all day and she was tired. Having listened to marathons of meetings on this issues last Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and now Monday night, Mosher said three minutes at the tail end of these meetings was not enough time for herself and her fellow community members.
“This is not community engagement,” she said.
School committee member Michelle Brousseau, who was one of two committee members to vote against moving forward with the September submission deadline, said the lack of community engagement and the high price tag associated with this project makes her “sick to her stomach.”
“The fact that the community members who’ve spoken out at the recent school building committee meetings, and the joint meeting last night and some of our meetings, have said ‘four or five hour meetings, followed by three minutes of comment, is not community engagement,’” Brousseau said. “Furthermore, the majority of the school building committee meetings were held during the day.”
Although this was done out of respect for town employees so they wouldn’t have to sit in meetings until late at night, Brousseau said she has some grave concerns about the project. For members of the community who do not have children currently in the school system, she said many people might not know anything about this project and there hasn’t been enough work done to bring them into the conversation – especially the business community in Wakefield that gets frequently patronized by students after school.
School committee member Kate Macinanti, who also sits on the school building committee, was the other lone vote against pushing forward. Financial Advisor Steve Macaroni ran through multiple scenarios last Thursday night for the joint presentation for the town council and school committee, which looked at different interest rates and bond terms, and concluded this project was possible if South Kingstown receives 50 percent reimbursement as planned. Despite this, Macinanti still felt uncomfortable given the ongoing pandemic and its strains on the local and state economy. She also worried about the town being able to bond other important municipal capital projects in the future.
Although Councilwoman Deb Kelso, who also sits on the school building committee, said she supports plans to relocate the high school, at this point she has concerns “about the viability of a bond passing in this town.”
“I think we need to engage the public in a different way than we have been,” Kelso said, acknowledging concerns that some members of the community may have no idea this is happening. “I agree with that. I could walk up and down my street and probably eight out of 10 [people] would have no idea what I was talking about.”
“I have a problem here with the process,” she added.
She echoed comments made by Councilman Joe Viele, who has found major fault with the necessary information not being available until the last minute.
“I don’t necessarily think, in my analysis to prepare for tonight, [that] I went back to say this is or isn’t a good project,” Viele said. “The question I think we have tonight is whether or not to move the application date out.”
The biggest reason he couldn’t support moving forward with the September submission deadline was because the council didn’t get all the necessary information connected with the Stage II application until this past Friday.
“I don’t see how anybody, since Friday, even if you closed yourself in a room for four days – and two of them business days and two of them were the weekend – even if you closed yourself in a room with the analysis, [but just] looking over the proposal, [could] make a coherent decision,” he said.
The 1,000 pages of information takes the Department of Education eight weeks to look over, according to Viele, and the council didn’t have nearly that amount of time.
Any discussions about how to pay for this project, he added, have been about how much it will cost the taxpayer, rather than how the town and the school will work to find operational savings. By delaying the application, he hopes there might be more time to run these types of analyses.
These next few months might also offer a clearer picture of how the pandemic has affected the economy, he said, and whether or not the town needs more pause for concern when signing off on such a big project.
By putting off the vote, Viele said he believes the town will be provided with enough time to make the best possible decision.
Although Town Council Vice President Bryant Da Cruz, who also chairs the school building committee, said he understood the concerns of delaying the project further, ultimately he said the council needed “to make the decision that’s best for South Kingstown and best for our school department.”
Da Cruz acknowledged the fact that the school building committee didn’t have all the information when they voted last Wednesday, but despite new information, he personally believes the overall recommendation of the committee would have remained the same.
The “like new” high school design at Curtis Corner would cost about $105 million, according to the presentation that Town Manager Robert Zarnetske provided at the joint meeting last night. And the “not quite like new” high school at Curtis Corner would be slightly more affordable at $85 million, but to Macinanti’s opinion, as she shared last Wednesday, this wasn’t the best design for the students.
On Wednesday, Zarnetske had voted against moving forward with the September submission deadline, and on Friday night, he told the school committee he wasn’t “perfectly comfortable with going ahead on the 15th.”
“I think there are still a lot of questions that would benefit from having some further exploration,” Zarnetske said. “Columbia Street is potentially a very expensive abandon. It’s not necessarily going to be easy for us to dispose of that building. If we don’t dispose of that building, it becomes a maintenance nightmare.”
Zarnetske said he'd like to have a schedule of what the future expenses associated with Columbia Street and the district other facilities would be.
Town Council President Abel Collins acknowledged “that this has been an incredibly frustrating and sometimes discouraging process.”
“I think we’re risking money, but that’s just a risk,” Collins said. “We’ve got to make sure this project is done right.”
“There’s still work to be done, clearly,” he added. “It’s very frustrating to be told on one day that we’re not going to have the numbers, then the next day to have the numbers. Then to hear that we’re not going to be able to submit on Feb. 15, and the next day hear that we will be able to submit on Feb. 15. It’s been a roller coaster of a past week.”