SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The key Stage II application for South Kingstown’s proposed school facilities upgrade has again been delayed, this time to February of 2021.
The Town Council voted unanimously in the early morning hours of Sept. 15 to reject the application, which was due in to the state Department of Education the same day, with the intent of sending it in February.
“It’s not been an easy journey, and we’re not done with this by any means,” Supt. Of Schools Linda Savastano said. “We know that this is stage 2 of a five-stage process, and that the Department of Education considers this project and its plan exemplary.”
The council followed the course of the School Building Committee, which also voted to postpone the submission to the next opportunity, by Feb. 15, 2021.
Days earlier on Sept. 11, the School Committee voted to submit the $92 million application to the state.
That plan would include $78 million in bonded debt, $6 million in state grant money, plus $7.7 million in non debt-funded capital improvement work.
The application is needed in order to seek state reimbursement of between 35 and 50 percent on the work after its substantial completion. That money comes from a statewide $250 million bond issue for school projects that voters approved in November 2018.
Currently on the table is a plan to renovate Curtis Corner Middle School for use as a new high school site, and to expand Broad Rock School as well. The town’s elementary schools also would receive site improvements.
The Stage II application has been in the works for almost two years.
The town submitted a Stage 2 Necessity of School Construction application for school construction aid to the state in February 2019. The state’s School Building Authority deferred consideration of South Kingstown’s application until September 2019, but local officials pushed the target to February 2020 and then to September after the Curtis Corner high school option was introduced.
Councilman Bryant Da Cruz, who also chairs the Building Committee, called it a “good project,” but agreed with the Building Committee’s recommendation to move the submission to February.
“There’s a lot more work that we could do at Curtis Corner to make it what it needs to be,” Da Cruz said. “There’s still some questions that I think need to be answered. At the end of the day it’s something the entire town is going to have to pay for, and we have to find the best possible means and ways to make this happen.”
Councilor Joe Viele said the additional three months could give the town time to look at what the project’s operational savings could be.
“I think it’s wrong to consider any time we talk about how to pay for this, we only talk about increases instead of operational savings. I don’t think we know what they are, and maybe that’s why we’re not talking about them,” he said.
Concerns about the viability of a bond passing in town weighed on Councilor Deborah Kelso’s mind.
“The concern is, there are folks out there who do not know this is happening,” Kelso said. “I have a problem with the process.”
The council was getting information as late as Sept. 14 about the project, and Kelso called that “egregious.”
“I think most importantly here is that we have a plan the community can get behind, because if a bond doesn’t pass, we have nothing,” she said.
Council member Rory McEntee also supported the School Building Committee’s vote to delay to February.
“As of that last meeting they had unanswered questions, and that should point to us as to how we should proceed,” he said. “The fact that we’re rushing up to this deadline, don’t have complete information before the Monday vote, still don’t have complete information before the vote tonight, that is bad business.”
Information he wanted to see includes an analysis for operating costs of each new building after construction and total costs for the disposition of the Columbia Street high school building.
Councilors also cited ambiguities around the COVID-19 situation and the still unadopted state budget for the current fiscal year as other reasons to hold off, for now.
The town’s application requests $56.9 million in aid from the state, if the town were to be approved for 50 percent reimbursement. The town risks losing 15 percent of the reimbursement, however, if it doesn’t have signed construction contracts by December of 2022.
“If all things go well, if we focus on making sure this application is the best it can be,” Town Manager Rob Zarnetske said, “I believe we can get to a bond schedule that will not put us in jeopardy for hitting December 2022, at least for executed contracts.”
The danger, he said, would be if the town made big changes, such as moving the high school work back to Columbia Street.
Delaying the Stage II application also requires some more work related to Stage I, Zarnetske said.
“There are pieces of Stage I that would have to be refreshed and perhaps re-written,” he said.
Savastano said some new studies and demographics would need to be incorporated.
“This has been an incredibly frustrating and sometimes discouraging process,” Council President Abel Collins said before the vote. “I think we’re risking money, but it’s just a risk. We’ve got to make sure this process is done right. Still more work to be done, clearly.”