There is a growing sense of alarm surrounding the progress on the School Facility Plan.
The course of the plan changed last November with the discarding of input from the broader community that informed the original direction. South Kingstown spent $150,000 with outside contractors to engage the community and craft a multi-faceted, comprehensive plan. Working with thousands of stakeholders over several months, the School Committee began the effort that would represent a significant step towards calibrating our hard asset needs with our changing town.
An election changed the makeup of the body that started that process. With a quick vote, that path was significantly altered. Since then, the committee appears to have relinquished its oversight of the process, leaving it largely to a building committee and ignoring the original inputs from the broader community of South Kingstown. Only recently, with a new project manager on board, have we heard statements like “let’s review how we got here.”
Meanwhile, official communications or updates from the building committee have been absent save for the recording of minutes. Those give the appearance of proceeding as if the major diversion from the original community input was insignificant. If there is genuine interest in figuring out how we arrived here, why has no one reached out to any of the individuals that were intimately involved with developing this plan from the start? The prior building committee chair that oversaw the stage one application and the chair of the school committee that developed the community outreach have yet to be contacted. The only insight has come from a few currently elected board members who were barely present as original plans were developed.
To be very clear, operational savings created with the initial plan design, coupled with state funding that was “guaranteed” by the contractor at the time, were VERY critical components. Add to this the very real contingency that the Middle School additions originally contemplated might be foregone as demographic decline continued, and the original plan represented a net savings approaching $40 million.
In contrast, with the “guaranteed” state reimbursements being reduced to 35% to 40% and operational savings originally considered virtually eliminated, the new burden will fall squarely on the South Kingstown tax levy, to the tune of $30 million at least. That is a $70 million swing in one year.
Decisions made, and the ensuing indecision in guiding contractors, have then added $70 million to the backs of every household in South Kingstown. With 14,000 or so of these, that is about $5,000 each, above and beyond the property tax we pay each year.
And now we hear phrases like “revising the scope down?” Less work for a significantly more expensive price tag? Only in government does that make sense. Left unchecked, we could just end up with an $80 million quote to replace all the ceiling tiles in the district!
The project needs to be stopped and rebooted. Today, the building committee meetings are creeping forward with incremental cost escalation while managing down the expectations of the community. It is being done without reconciling any of the decisions to the original community input that formed the basis for the original plan.
The school district needs to reengage the community it has shunned for the last year. Reactionary decisions, indecision and a deficit of clear guidance will cost us too much. New plans are evolving in a way that ignores the day to day spending of the schools.
Once the district crosses a crucial point, the fiscal impacts of these decisions will have devastating effects on our education program. This last budget showed us how ill equipped we are to handle even the mildest of fiscal pressure. With the weight of a comprehensive facility overhaul added to the process, the district will be strained like never before in its history. It is time to step back and reassess before we cross that line.