St. Jean: Schools will spend ‘nowhere near’ $100 million on improvements

St. Jean: Schools will spend ‘nowhere near’ $100 million on improvements

Committee votes to move students from Halliwell

NORTH SMITHFIELD – A consultant’s report delivered last month did not take into account North Smithfield’s unique situation, and the town will take neither the time nor the amount of money projected to complete major projects such as the closure of Halliwell Memorial Elementary School, say school officials.

That message, repeated often to those attending a public hearing on the closure of the school last week, preceded a vote by the School Committee to move forward with a plan to relocate grade 4 students to North Smithfield Elementary School and grade 5 students to North Smithfield Middle School.

Supt. Michael St. Jean emphasized that the cost of the needed work will come “nowhere near,” the $100 million laid out in draft figures last month, and will be completed long before 2022, contrary to a time estimate quoted by consultants.

The vote is the latest move by the committee to move forward on a major reconfiguration and construction project that has plagued the district for decades. A dated facility in need of millions in repair, Halliwell and its ultimate demolition has been a contentious issue among town officials. Plans to decommission the school have come with varying ideas on where to send students in grades 3 to 5, and have envisioned everything from the building of a new facility to grade reconfigurations that would have seen pre-kindergartent students placed at the high school.

“The Halliwell issue has been a talked about concern in this town for the past 15 (or) 20 years,” said School Committee member Fran Johannis. “The School Committee and the people in this town need to make a decision.”

In 2014, voters approved a $4.3 million bond that would have seen Halliwell demolished, additional classrooms built at NSES and improvements done at both the middle school and the high school. But applications submitted to the Rhode Island Department of Education over the past several years were ultimately not approved. Recent estimates see the cost of that work far exceeding initial estimates.

Johannis was on the School Committee when the issue was first studied in 2009. Last Wednesday, she said the previous plan failed, in part, because it was “based on cost, rather than what was educationally sound.”

Earlier this year, the committee hired Symmes Maini & McKee Associates to create a master education and facilities plan. The SMMA report, delivered in August, laid out all of the work that could be done to the three remaining schools in the district, not just immediately, but well into the future.

When added together, projections for construction at NSES, NSMS and NSHS came up to around $100 million. Budget projections laid out by SMMA can be found at http://bit.ly/2jodecR . Additionally, SMMA Planner Philip Poinelli said that Halliwell would likely remain open until 2022.

But last Wednesday, Sept. 6, school officials clarified their plans, noting that SMMA officials did not take into account that North Smithfield schools already have bond money available to complete the work.

Committee member Jean Meo laid out misconceptions about the board’s approach to the project, stating first that they will not be building a new school.

“Some people seem to think that that is our agenda,” said Meo. “Number 2: we are not going to spend $100 million.” That figure, Meo said, might include “everything we might like to do in a perfect world, but it’s just not happening.”

Meo also disputed the idea that the SMMA report was a waste of money.

“It is actually a critical piece of the process and should have been done long ago,” she said, noting that the report makes the district eligible for a 36 percent reimbursement on all construction projects. “It was a fiscally responsible decision to commission that report.”

Further, “we are planning to close Halliwell School as quickly as we possibly can, but definitely before 2022,” Meo said. “We will make our decision based on what is best for our children, what is educationally appropriate and what is fiscally responsible and financially reasonable.”

Similar sentiments were offered by St. Jean.

“No, we are not proposing to spend $100 million,” St. Jean said. “If we were to take everything that every engineering report addressed over the next 40 years, we could approach that number, but that’s not what we’re looking for. That’s nowhere near where we’re going.”

On the current project, a presentation by St. Jean noted that the SMMA report will enable up to a $1.5 million reimbursement from RIDE.

The public hearing, held in the high school auditorium, began with a tour of the school, where St. Jean pointed out issues with the science labs and the boys’ locker rooms, two problems that led the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to put the school on warning status.

During public testimony, resident Mike Rapko, a former member of the town’s Budget Committee, noted that the SMMA report put enrollment capacity at the high school at 646 students. A similar report two years ago, Rapko pointed out, put capacity at 763, and one in 2009 said the school could accommodate 895 students.

Rapko asked SMMA’s Poinelli how his company arrived at the number.

“We looked at all the programs in the schools. We looked at how many times they’re used and how many spaces are needed to implement the curriculum. We’re not looking just at seats.”

Rapko asked why the firm did not calculate the cost of sending 8th graders to the high school and 4th graders to the middle school.

Committee Chairman James Lombardi said that the reconfiguration was not recommended by the School Buildings Commission. Further, “I don’t believe that the majority of this committee believes that is educationally sound,” Lombardi said.

The motion to move forward with plans to move grade 4 to NSES and grade 5 to NSMS, “as soon as practical,” to finalize the master plan, and to submit stage 1 and 2 construction applications to RIDE passed by a vote of 5-1, with committee member Merredythe Nadeau voting against the plan. Committee member Art Bassett was not in attendance.

Comments

The problem with the school committe is they think money is not a factor in making a decision but it is the number one issue. At my house I could use a new kitchen but I can't afford a new kitchen so I become creative and make due with the old kitchen. At the end of the day a new kitchen adds no value to being feed and either does a new school. The $100 million number was no more than a political move for the so called educators to negotiate a higher bond amount and waste the taxpayers money. The tax payers have voted and all you have is $4.3 million so become creative and make it work. How about this for an idea instead of asking the taxpayers for more money why don't you ask the legislators to remove the ridiculous prevailing wage so we can do 3 times the work for the same money. Spending is easy but being creative is work. Work seems to be the problem at the schools just review the test scores.

Our town is too small to support all these departments. How many times have we not had a tax increase and not counting property appraisals.Every three years when our property's get appraised our taxes go up.20 yrs ago I paid $1700.00 for house taxes,today I pay $5000.00 for a ranch house.