SOUTH KINGSTOWN — In an effort to not let another submission deadline pass them by, the school building committee has been discussing plans and possible timelines at length.
Rather than submitting last month as planned, the town council agreed with concerns from community members that the Necessity of School Construction Stage II application felt rushed and didn’t fully engage the public.
Although Councilwoman Deb Kelso has expressed her support for relocating the high school to Curtis Corner numerous times, she has also said that she wants everyone in the community to know about this project. Between now and the next submission deadline in February, Kelso said she hopes the committee uses its time wisely.
“We’re supposed to use this extra time to engage the public on their thoughts on the Stage II application that’s 99 percent complete right now,” Kelso said at Monday night’s school building committee meeting.
“Engage the public, take their comments, make sure that if there’s something wonderful in there — if someone has a great suggestion — we look at all the comments and truly take them into consideration before we submit,” she added.
For the month of October, Kelso recommends that the committee work to ensure that the Stage II application materials are in perfect order and ready to be shared with the public, so that during the month of November, the committee can welcome a 30 day comment period.
The months of December and January, Kelso said, should be used to evaluate those comments and make any changes and undated to the plans as needed. She hopes to see the application completely finished a few weeks prior to the submission deadline so that council and school committee members have time to fully review the materials.
“We’ve have taken this committee through the path, from Columbia Street to Curtius Corner — and back agains, and back again — and this school committee’s vote settled that question,” Kelso said. “The reason why it didn’t go to [the Rhode Island Department of Education] was because of the time involved, not the plan itself, I believe.”
At past meetings, when the topic of better community engagement has arisen, Kelso has also offered the suggestion of sending information mailers to every household. Multiple committee members have agreed with this suggestion, despite the cost that might be associated with such an endeavor.
“A lot of the critistm has been that people aren’t aware this is happening,” Kelso said. “This is a big deal. This is the most money this town has ever bonded. I think the courtesy of a postcard to every household, taxpayer, tax account — however we’re going to do this — we need to go further than the school committee outreach.”
“I think it’s money well spent,” she added.
Even if people don’t want to comment and throw the mailer in the recycling the same day it comes in, Kelso said the committee will be able to know they did everything in their power “to make sure people have a chance to comment.”
Melissa Towle, the only community member who currently sits on the school building committee and lends her expertise as an interior designer, threw her support behind Kelso’s suggested timeline and idea to direct community members to an online feedback forum though the mailers.
Her question on how best to get that information to the public led back to discussions of hiring a communications firm — something the school committee had voted against in early March.
At the time, however, the proposal before them had been for Horan Communications to “design and coordinate execution of a comprehensive public information and engagement campaign for the referendum to finance the proposed school facilities projects” — which did not sit well with several of the school committee members.
School Committee Vice Chair Sarah Markey had said that “marketing a message as a school district to the voters” felt “fundamentally wrong” to her.
“I just, fundamentally, don’t think it’s the district’s role to do the education when it comes to a bond,” she added.
School committee member Michelle Brousseau also voiced her opposition towards engaging the services of Horan Communications at the time. Doing so would feel like selling the project to the community, not simply informing them, she’d said.
With regards to sending out postcards and utilizing the feedback forum, as developed by School Superintendent Linda Savastano and school committee member Kate Macinanti, the committee was generally in favor of this effort to engage the community. The school committee will discuss and vote on this matter next week.
“I think it’s a great start,” said school committee member Kate Macinanti. “Obviously, we probably should have done this a while ago.”
In her option, paying a communications group to better engage the community and paying to inform voters of a bond question are “two completely different animals.”
In light of the upcoming election, appointments to the school building committee have also become a topic of discussion. Last week, Kelso raised the issues to her fellow town councilors, and asked that they reevaluate the seats they’ve already appointed and decide how many town staff and council members they want there going forward. In addition to filling vacancies come the election, Kelso said she hopes to see the school building committee gain some voices experience in fields they’re currently lacking, like construction.
“It’s a different skill going into Stage III than it was in Stages I and Stage II,” Kelso said at last week’s council meeting. “I think it’s important that we really examine the committee going forward.”
She noted for her fellow councilors that they’re in charge of appointing or reappointing seven people to the committee, as opposed to the school committee’s six seats.
Starting now, the council needs to start considering what they need, and what they can go without.
“We may decide as a council that the seven need to stay,” Kelso said. “I just think we need to look at it. I think it’s important we reexamine this, [because] it’s been a couple of years, two and a half years, since the committee was appointed.”
“I think it’s important that we, as the council, look at those appointments and make sure that we have two or three members of the public included in this committee,” she added.
Town Manager Robert Zarnetske pointed out the committee has multiple members with the same skill sets and backgrounds, and that it might better serve the project to have members of the public included in this process. For insurance, the town facilities director and building official, and the school maintenance director, have all sat on the committee at the same time. Both the town and the school finance directors have also sat on the committee together, as well.
Even if some of these people were to no longer sit on the committee, Kelso said they could call on them when needed and when looking for specific information. Right now, Kelso said the council should be considering appointments that will help carry the project through Stage III submission.