Nearly three years ago, a Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) study, the Jacobs Report, identified schools throughout the state needing hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements just to bring them to a safe level, and billions to make them safe and ready for 21st century learning.
The report underscored what many communities already knew about the condition of their schools, inciting discussions and sometimes arguments about how to improve those schools, and how to fund the improvements.
Last week two school systems and communities were faced with important deadlines that would help determine whether they would be eligible for significant incentive payments from a $250 million school building bond passed by voters statewide in 2018.
In Newport, where Rogers High School was found by Jacobs to be among the schools in the most deplorable condition, with a roomful of parents and elementary school students looking on, the City Council approved a stage two application to RIDE. Earlier in the week the School Committee approved the plan that includes details of what is projected to be a $112 million project that calls for a new high school and eight classroom addition to the Pell Elementary School.
The vote moves the project to RIDE for review and puts it on track for a local referendum in November.
“It is a large amount of money,” said Mayor Jamie Bova. “It is an investment. We will not prosper as a community without good schools.”
In Westerly they’ve been grappling with school building issues for years, based on a Vision 2020 plan that upgraded or built new high school and middle school facilities, but had yet to reach the elementary schools. Twice elementary school referenda have been defeated – in 2016, a plan that called for school renovations; and in 2019, a $71.4 million plan that called for construction of a new elementary school, along with other school improvements.
After defeat of the 2019 bond, school officials re-formed its school building committee, and reinforced an education vision that calls for a pre-k through 2/3 to 5 elementary education system. A letter of intent, the first step, was submitted with a slight bump when officials bickered over whether the town manager needed council approval to sign off on the letter.
But when the stage one application reached the council last Monday, in advance of RIDE’s Feb. 17 deadline for submission, it was met with a divided council that rejected the application on a 4 to 3 vote. Some councilors were concerned about the “educational vision” and others felt there wasn’t enough time to review alternative proposals, even though school officials mapped out a timeline to review all building proposals.
The Stage 1 submission is preliminary to Stage 2, which requires an actual building plan. Stage 1 is a statement of need, noting demographics, enrollment expectations, and more, but doesn’t require any specific building plans.
Those voting against submission suggested the Stage 1 application could be submitted by an August deadline, assuring that nothing would go to referendum in the November election, when a recent school sponsored survey suggested the expected large turnout would be more likely to approve the local bond issue.
Megan Geoghegan, a RIDE spokesperson, said Westerly could submit the stage one application before August, but if it misses the Feb. 17 deadline it would “need to resubmit a letter of intent and ‘new’ Stage 1 application. The majority of the content, though, would be the same. They would just need to update for timeliness/accuracy on things like student demographics and construction timelines. So, they’d resubmit, but it would be a much lighter fit.”
But it never came to that, as the council first scheduled a special meeting to reconsider its negative vote on Feb. 18 – a day after the deadline – and then back to last Friday, where only five of seven councilors attended. One councilor, Suzanne Giorno changed her vote from opposing submission to approving it, resulting in a 3 to 2 vote in favor of submission.
Friction between the school board and council remains. Councilman Bill Aiello, who was a leading advocate for the opposition in the last bond, remains in opposition, believing the school board should be working closer with the council, and Councilwoman Sharon Ahearn believes the schools should change the educational vision.
There is strong support for a k-2 class configuration. Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said the state’s two best performing systems use a pre-k configuration, and nationally the k-2, 3-5 Elementary School Model is in use in many school districts that hail its collaboratively, developmental, and financial benefits.