SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — With early voting taking place for weeks, residents will head to polling places May 4 to decide the fate of an $85 million bond designed to reconfigure South Kingstown’s schools.
It has become one of the most momentous, and divisive, elections in the town’s recent history.
The work would relocate South Kingstown High School grades 9-12 to a renovated and expanded Curtis Corner School site, provide room for grades 6-8 at Broad Rock Middle School and make improvements at the town’s four elementary schools for grades pre-kindergarten through 5.
District administration offices would move to the former South Road Elementary School site, while the Columbia Street high school would be discontinued.
Referendum day voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. May 4 at South Kingstown High School and West Kingston and Matunuck Elementary Schools.
The school department has launched a website, sksdbuild.org, which contains information about the project, and paid a public relations firm to help promote the plan.
The vote is taking place while the town is waiting for word from the Rhode Island Department of Education about whether the state will accept a key Stage II application for the project.
The Stage II approval is a step toward the town receiving 35-50% in reimbursement funds from the state through its School Construction Program.
South Kingstown’s plan would receive the full 50% if it qualifies for 15% in “bonus incentives” based on the plan. The district anticipates it will qualify for 5% bonuses in each of three areas: consolidation of two or more school buildings into one school building, addressing health and safety deficiencies and providing educational enhancements, including Career and Technical Education.
Town officials estimate that for a South Kingstown home assessed at $400,000, the annual tax bill would range from about $200 (with the 50% state reimbursement) to $280 (with a 35% reimbursement).
For the project to advance, it needs approval at three major steps: the referendum, the state education department and the Town Council.
If the state’s School Building Authority recommends approval of the Stage II submission, the application also must be approved by the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, potentially at its meeting on May 11. The recommendation also would have to be approved by the full Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The final step in the process before authorization of the bond is a vote by the Town Council.
According to the current plans as presented by architects RGB, key features are as follows:
High School Highlights
The renovated Curtis Corner school would feature an 85,966 square-foot addition with flexible learning spaces, technology upgrades, a 1,000-seat auditorium, new gym and fitness center, a community room and upgraded career and technical education studios.
Middle School Highlights
Broad Rock would serve grades 6-8. It would get two mirrored additions totaling 32,485 additional square feet, with flexible learning spaces, a large common area, and “collaboration suites” for teachers.
Elementary Schools Highlights
All four elementary buildings would see upgraded library and media centers, shared collaboration spaces and technology and systems improvements. Wakefield Elementary would operate early childhood programs and integrated pre-kindergarten.
The project proposal has had a bumpy ride over the past several years, with struggles and delays to get a suitable Stage II approval, opposition from residents who support improvements but have found faults with the current plan, and public participation challenges related to COVID.
A vocal segment of the town has come out in opposition to the current plan, and set up its own website arguing its points at stopthisplan.com.
Running the website are community members Paula Bradley and Tara Schold.
“Very simply, this facility plan does not have our students’ best interest at the heart of it,” Bradley said in a recent online post.
They noted that the RIDE on April 13 contacted the school district asking for more detailed cost estimates and more information about issues including traffic and environmental factors. Opponents say the questions mirror some of their concerns. The town was working to submit its answers by Wednesday, the state’s deadline.
They also argue the plan is not aligned with RIDE recommendations from the 2017 Jacobs Report. The report detailed $30 million in needed work at the elementary schools and $24 million at the Columbia Street High School.
“The plan provides less than $9 million at our four elementary schools combined, a $24 million addition to Broad Rock Middle School, and $59 million to add onto and partially renovate Curtis Corner to become the high school,” a post on the site says.
“The plan presented to us focuses on making the high school the focal point of the district,” Bradley said. “The problem is that our town has already stated SK cannot afford to build new and the site selected requires a completely new build, in order to do it right.”
The Curtis Corner site, they claim, also is plagued with environmental problems – a claim supporters say is unfounded.
“Additionally, the plan in front of us virtually ignores our elementary school needs. This plan will only add to our building issues, not solve them,” Bradley said.
Bradley circulated a petition to stop the plan earlier this year, and later reported that the document would be considered by RIDE during the Stage II application review.
With equal enthusiasm, supporters of the project are getting their message out on the website friendsofskschools.org, as well as a Facebook page of the same name.
The site includes testimonials from supporters, many of them educators or former educators in town, about the merits of the plan.
Ryan Muir, the choir and theater director at the high school, is one of them. Muir said he’s excited about the Curtis Corner facility plan and its effect on students. He’s especially enthusiastic about a new auditorium.
“Our current facilities are in disrepair and for a space that is meant for every student and the broader community, it falls very short of the mark,” he said. “The quality and condition of a school and its publicly used auditorium space is a reflection of the priorities and values of the town. This sends an important message to both community members, students and visitors. Visiting surrounding schools and their facilities will make this point clear.”
The new space could be used for programs such as G.E.A.R (Give Everyone A Role), school concerts, and other artistic and community events, he said.
“Our current facilities do not match the quality of our educators and learners at SK, changing that should be priority number one,” Muir added.
The ballot question reads: “Shall an act passed at the 2021 session of the General Assembly entitled ‘An act authorizing the town of South Kingstown to issue not to exceed $85,000,000 general obligation bonds, notes and other evidences of indebtedness to finance the construction, renovation, improvement, alteration, repair, landscaping, furnishing and equipping of schools and school facilities throughout the town, and all attendant expenses including, but not limited to, engineering and architectural costs, provided that the authorization shall be reduced by the amount of certain grants received from state bond proceeds, from the Rhode Island Department of Education or from the Rhode Island School Building Authority’ be approved?”