‘To build or not to build’ – Westerly voters to decide school bond fate, while other communities ponder similar measures

Just a few weeks from an Oct. 10 referendum on a $71.4 million school bond referendum, Westerly residents are clearly divided, and embroiled in a battle that has become personal, and is being waged on social media, on radio, in print and in conversations at coffee shops and neighborhood taverns.

To build or not to build – that seems to be the question. 

It’s a question that many Rhode Island communities are facing. In Newport, where they face a project that would cost well north of $100 million, contentious debate has already begun, as the Middletown Town Council rejected a request from Newport, supported by state education officials, to study merging the Middletown and Newport school systems, at least on a high school level.

Many around the state are likely watching the battle and debate in Westerly.

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It’s a debate that has seen so-called facts twisted and turned to support whatever side is talking. It’s a debate that has some bitter over a narrow defeat a few years ago of another school bond, of distrust of the motives of both opponents and proponents, accusations that facts are being withheld or lies are being told.

It has divided the Town Council, and even the School Committee, where its chairperson resigned from the School Building Committee and is actively campaigning against the bond referendum.

Caught in the middle are hundreds of school children, from pre-kindergarten to high school seniors, who are attending schools that the Rhode Island Department of Education has identified as needing millions of dollars in repairs or replacement.

The only item that most seem to agree upon is that the State Street Elementary School needs to either be replaced and a new school built or closed with its pupils sent to the town’s other elementary schools –Dunn’s Corners or Springbrook.

The centerpiece of the bond proposal is tearing down and building a new State Street Elementary School at a cost of more than $37 million. Another $12.3 million is slated for upgrades at Dunn’s Corners, $7.2 million at Springbrook, $3.9 million at Babcock High School building, $8.9 million at Ward High School building, and another $1.9 million district wide.

The plan was approved last May by RIDE’s Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, which said the town would be eligible for several temporary incentives that could increase state aid from 35 percent to 50 percent, including debt service on the bonds, estimated at nearly $40 million.

Proponents of the bond are saying the real cost to taxpayers – if the total cost is $118 million – is likely to be $59 million, if all state aid is included. Opponents on postings in social media have failed to mention the impact of state aid, and just state the total cost $118 million, not mentioning guaranteed state aid of 35 percent, or likely state aid up to 50 percent.

The temporary incentives are the result of a $250 million statewide bond approved in 2018 by voters, after RIDE issued what’s called the Jacobs report (named after the study’s author) that identified a need statewide to spend nearly $630 million to bring schools around the state to just a “warm, safe and dry” condition and identified more than $2.2 billion “in facility deficiency costs to meet aspirational standards.”

RIDE accepts applications for building projects annually, in the Fall, requiring an initial application and then a more detailed application before approving projects in the Spring.  The Westerly project was one of six approved last May, the first proposals submitted and approved since the statewide bond approval. Each district would have to find a way to finance its share, with most seeking sizeable bond referenda.

Here are some of the contentious issues in Westerly:

  • State Street School. While there are those that believe a new school should be built, there are those that believe the town should sell the school and consolidate its pupils in other elementary schools.
  • State Street School. While agreeing with the need for a new school, there are those that believe the current site with substantial drainage issues should be abandoned and a new site found for the new school building.
    • Asked if the School Building Committee considered other sites, Gina Fuller, chair of the building committee, said they had not because of the cost of acquiring a new site. She acknowledged drainage issues, and said the plan includes a million dollars to address the issues. She did not estimate the cost of land for a new building, or if the committee considered any revenue that it might realize from the sale of the existing building.
  • If the bond is approved, it would result in a new grade configuration, with pre-K through second grade in two of the schools, and three through five at the new school. Six through eight would be at the middle school, and nine through 12 at the high school. There are those who have questioned the realignment.
  • Busing. Some in the community are concerned that the new configuration will require additional busing and keep school children on buses longer. School Committeewoman Mary Adams said school officials have said there are adequate buses and drivers (Fuller said the school system might need to add an additional driver). Both Adams and Fuller said most school children are on the bus no more than 25 minutes, and there should be no appreciable increase in time with the new configuration. Some in the community speculate the new configuration will increase bus rides. Several sources around the country suggest school children should not ride a school bus longer than an hour each way.
  • Taxes. There are those who say taxes are high enough in Westerly, even though the town’s tax rate is among the lowest statewide. The School Building Committee has estimated that if a house is assessed at $250, property taxes will increase $97 for 2020-2021.