SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The Town Council on Thursday unanimously approved authorization for the school administration to draft language to move toward a bond referendum that could include a $125 million plan for a new high school.
Officials estimate that the grades 9-12 building would need $49.5 million worth of repairs over the course of the next decade. This is all the while enrollment in the district drops and concerns surrounding affordable housing linger.
School officials throughout the surrounding area believe enrollment numbers will continue to drop, next fiscal year.
After hearing multiple residents speak on the issue during the public comment portion of the meeting, the South Kingstown council expressed its collective belief that the 69-year-old high school is well beyond its useful life and cannot be renovated properly.
Council President Rory McEntee, who graduated from the school in 2011, expressed that the building was not in good shape at that time he left and has not shown improvement. He added, he believes a new high school is an immediate need.
“I knew coming into this meeting that at a minimum, we had to find a way to approve a new high school,” Council President Rory McEntee said. “Move forward with at least that being on the referendum for our voters to decide. I’m happy to hear that we’ve come to terms with a certain number for that and what to prioritize. Because I believe it’s also important that we need to be unanimous, we need to signal to the community that the council is behind this, the town’s leaders are behind this, that ultimately (it) hopefully helps put this over the top.”
If improvements are passed by the voters, the town would be eligible for reimbursement in 2029, following assumed completion of constructions in May 2028, Finance Director Brian Silvia said.
There would be a gradual increase of tax over the first three years during construction. After state aid, the projected cost of the project would be $6.4 million, Silvia added.
Over the five years of the bond project, there would be an estimated 7.23% tax levy increase.
There was some concern from the public on Thursday regarding the timing of the potential rebuild of the high school.
Catherine Canavan, of Narragansett, leaned toward advocating for a 10-year plan and renovations rather than a full rebuild – suggesting that the district could turn unused wings into office or storage space.
Canavan questioned the improvement expenses going from $85 million to well north of $100 million, when prices are inflated, calling it “the worst possible time” for a high school rebuild.
The voters in 2021 rejected the town’s proposal for up to $85 million in bonds to be put toward school facility improvements. The 2021 referendum vote struck down a proposal to move the high school from Columbia Street to the Curtis Corner Middle School building, before renovating and expanding it.
Canavan said, it is unknown to the town as to what kind of growth, or lack-there-of, it could experience in its student population in the future.
“You’re not (going to grow), you’re losing people,” Canavan said. “Why are we here? You’re saying you don’t have the students for the school that you have … I’m afraid you’re going to build a new one and you’re not gonna touch it again. And 25 years from now, or 50 years from now, you’re gonna say, ‘we need another new building.’ Why wasn’t it upkept?”
South Kingstown resident Dorald Beasley during the public portion of the meeting said he believes the money to build the high school and make fixes to the district needs to come out of the school budget “that’s a responsible number.” He added, he thinks there’s “more than enough” money in the budget to pay for the high school “and not tax a penny to the people of the town.”
“I think it’s a travesty that we would bulldoze 235,000 square feet of the existing high school complex when this town is dying for affordable housing,” Beasley said.
South Kingstown has until December 2023 to take advantage of a 52.5% state-enhanced reimbursement – for new construction or renovations.
Under current legislation, this year is the town’s final opportunity to qualify for the additional bonuses, officials said. It would need to “have shovels in the ground” by December.
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