SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. —Officials in South Kingstown spent much of 2020 in Zoom meetings, working to shepherd an $85 million proposal for a new high school and other educational facility improvements to the state early next year and then to voters.
Residents elected new members to the Town Council and School Committee, and the town’s longtime clerk finally took a well-deserved retirement.
With seasonal traffic down because of COVID-19, the state completed a major upgrade to Tower Hill Road, and finished work on a new dormitory building at the University of Rhode Island — just before the coronavirus sent students home in the spring.
School facilities project gains steam
It was just a week into 2020 when officials revealed the $85 million price tag for the schools project.
The plan that’s been on the table for much of the year would have a new high school built by renovating and expanding the Curtis Corner School site. Students in grades 7 and 8 at Curtis Corner would move into Broad Rock Middle School, joining grade 6. Fifth-graders currently at Broad Rock would go to the four elementary schools.
Also, the defunct South Road School would become the district’s new school administration building. The elementary schools would receive upgrades to library and media centers and other minor improvements.
In order for the project to move forward, the town has to provide the state with a Stage 2 Necessity of School Construction application, a process that’s taken almost two years.
Initially the application was to be submitted in February, but the deadline got moved to September and then again to next February.
Town officials have targeted holding a bond referendum on the $85 million in spending in May 2021, although it could be as soon as March 2, if the town decides to fast-track the question in order to get it on a state referendum planned for that date. The prospect has some town councilors concerned it’s now moving too fast.
In the meantime, residents weighed in on the project at several key forums this year. The first, held in February, asked them what they’d like to see happen with the Columbia Street High School if it’s vacated for a new facility. Town officials and residents have offered ideas for the site to potentially be redeveloped. Some have suggested affordable housing or residences for senior citizens could be put on the property, with the town able to offer incentives such as tax abatements to a developer.
In November, the School Building Committee launched a website, SKSDbuild.org, which includes information about the educational vision, scope of the projects, their financing and additional data.
The committee also held a virtual community presentation to provide an overview of the proposals and respond to questions and comments, and Superintendent of Schools Linda Savastano hosted two virtual listening sessions in December.
New faces join council, school committee
It was a Democratic sweep on the Town Council in November, with two newcomers joining three incumbents on South Kingstown’s governing body.
Deborah Bergner and Jessica Rose succeeded departing council members Joe Viele and Bryant Da Cruz. Council incumbents Abel Collins, Deborah Kelso and Rory McEntee were re-elected.
Bergner received the most total votes, topping 7,500 in the race for the five open council seats.
Bergner ran on platforms of affordable housing, responsible growth and mindful spending.
Rose narrowly beat out independent candidate Charles Sweet, and learned she’d won after the state spent days tabulating mail-in votes.
Collins, who the council re-elected as its president, said he’s looking forward to two more years on the council, and making progress locally. McEntee was chosen as the new vice-president.
Voters also sent four Democrats to the seven-member School Committee, choosing them over a slate of independent candidates.
Top vote-getter Paula Whitford, the first woman of color sworn in on the committee, ran on a platform of equity, inclusion and engagement that resonated with voters in a year of race-related protests locally and nationally as well as calls for reforms in the local schools.
There was a change in leadership this year too. Incumbent Emily Cummiskey became the new chairperson of the committee Dec. 15. She took over from Stephanie Canter, who did not receive enough votes to advance past the September primary.
Veteran clerk calls it a career
Dale S. Holberton retired in February after more than 30 years as South Kingstown’s town clerk.
At the final Town Council meeting she attended as clerk, the council read into the record a resolution honoring Holberton for her service to the town, not only as clerk but in many other areas and ways.
Holberton was just the 16th clerk for South Kingstown since its 1723 founding. She began her long career with the clerk’s office in September 1980. She became deputy clerk in 1985 and clerk in 1987.
Her tenure ties the record for third longest-serving clerk in South Kingstown with James Helme. They’re surpassed only by Foster Sheldon at 36 years and Howard B. Perry at 55 years.
Holberton was clerk with 17 different councils, probate clerk for six probate judges, administered 51 elections as clerk for the canvassing authority, orchestrated 19 financial town meetings and an all-day budget referendum.
She oversaw the 1989 renovation of council chambers into the current town clerk’s office space. The council chambers moved to its current second-floor room at that time. She also oversaw the 1994 renovation of the town vault. She implemented changes that introduced electronic recording of land records and computerized viewing of documents.
As liaison to the Saugatucket Veterans Memorial Park Commission, she spent hours helping to certify the names of veterans that appear on the memorial. In March 2016, she headed the engraving of additional names on the memorial, and the Hazard School war monument.
Her record includes service with the Rhode Island Town and City Clerks Association as treasurer, vice president and president. She also served on the executive board of the New England Association of City and Town Clerks.
Tower Hill Road gets a makeover
Describing it as a “nice little project,” Rhode Island’s Director of Transportation lauded the improvements the state made to a half-mile stretch of Tower Hill Road in one of the busiest parts of South Kingstown, completed in October.
“I’m sure it’s a big project – it’s Main Street, U.S.A. for the town,” Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr. said.
As part of the $3.9 million project, there’s new surface pavement from the top of the hill where cars enter and exit Route 1 all the way to the four-way intersection with Kingstown Road at Dale Carlia Corner. There are other improvements that go along with it, including new designated lanes for bicycles and center lanes for turning.
New median islands better control traffic flow in and out of businesses in the corridor. Safety upgrades include new traffic signals and curbing along with wider, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant sidewalks and crosswalks.
As part of the project, the DOT installed on-site storm water treatment systems called bio-retention basins. They were built into the sidewalks that were widened as part of the project to accommodate the new system.
Alviti said the project was completed a month ahead of schedule and within its budget.
It was work eagerly awaited by town leaders, residents and local businesses along the commercial strip, which includes a Shaw’s market, McDonald’s, Burger King, two car dealerships, the Wakefield Mall, plus banks, restaurants and smaller stores.
The Old Tower Hill Road project was part of RhodeWorks, the state’s campaign to repair structurally deficient bridges and bring Rhode Island’s transportation infrastructure into a state of good repair.
URI opens new residence hall
The early reviews for Brookside Hall, the University of Rhode Island’s new $94-million, 500-bed residence hall on the Kingston campus, were glowing at its public unveiling in February.
URI held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open the 203,000-square-foot residence hall that features a café, apartment units with full kitchens and living rooms and landscaped sitting areas around a restored White Horn Brook.
URI President David M. Dooley cut a ceremonial ribbon with Vice President for Student Affairs Kathy Collins, other URI officials, students and staff. The ceremonies marked the official opening of the first new residence hall at URI since Hillside Hall, which opened in October 2012.
The 122 student apartments in Brookside are designed for juniors and seniors who want to live on campus. Most are four- and six-bedroom units.
Each unit has a full kitchen with dining table and chairs, a refrigerator, stove, microwave oven, dishwasher and sink. The furnished living rooms have a couch, chairs, coffee table, end tables and a TV table. Central heating and air conditioning can be controlled in each apartment.
Each bedroom is outfitted with a full-size, lofted bed and mattress, three-drawer dresser, wardrobe, mirror, desk and two-position chair.
Students and community members will also be able to eat breakfast, lunch and supper at the 48-seat Brookside Bistro. It’s the first URI Dining Services facility designed as part of a university residence hall.
Just outside the residence hall’s front doors, students have safe bike path access to Wakefield, Peace Dale and Narragansett via the URI Bike Path Spur, which opened in November and connects to the William C. O’Neill Bike Path.
Students began moving in Jan. 18, as soon as they were able to do so. It was a short stay, however, when in March they moved back out after COVID-19 started to appear in Rhode Island. URI re-opened the dorms on a limited basis at the start of the fall semester.