SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — An estimated $85 million in school improvement projects are on the table for South Kingstown in the coming years, town officials said Tuesday.
The total includes up to $50 million in spending on the high school, $15 million for an addition to Broad Rock School and $15 million for the elementary schools.
“What drives the capital improvement program over the next six years is the school facilities project,” Town Manager Rob Zarnetske told a joint meeting of the Town Council and the School Committee. “It’s the largest project in the capital improvement program.”
The town’s six-year debt funded capital program also includes $6.5 million for infrastructure improvements on the municipal side, which officials were set to discuss Wednesday.
About $78 million would be bonded for the school projects.
One option being explored would move the high school students and staff to an expanded Curtis Corner Middle School building. That idea came from new Superintendent of Schools Linda Savastano in October.
“We were always talking about some improvements to our elementary schools, and about an addition to Broad Rock,” Savastano said. “That would allow us to put our fifth-grade at the elementary schools and have grades six, seven and eight at Broad Rock.”
The school improvements present a daunting task for the town, as officials try to come up with a plan that meets the needs of both the students and the community.
“The project as conceived is doable, but it isn’t going to be easy to do,” Zarnetske said.
South Kingstown has completed the first stage of the state’s five-stage Necessity of School Construction process in identifying the need for the work.
The town is planning to re-submit to the state its Stage 2 application for the school projects in September, a key step toward receiving 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.
“We’ve got a rare opportunity right now, the state is giving away money,” Zarnetske said. “But that money isn’t the only way we can succeed. Experts in this field tell us we could succeed incrementally if we have to … it’s not a disaster if we don’t get $85 million.”
The town submitted a Stage 2 Necessity of School Construction application for school construction aid to the Rhode Island Department of Education 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 next September after the Curtis Corner high school option was introduced.
Officials envision the high school work as a two-year process, with $25 million available for 2021-22 and another $25 million for 2022-23.
However, Zarnetske said up to $65 million is available for the high school project. The School Committee approved spending up to $50 million last August, but cost escalation because of time that’s transpired boosted that number, he said.
The $15 million in additions to Broad Rock would take place in 2022-23, while classes are still in session.
Also in the works is a reconstruction of the Peace Dale Elementary School parking lot this summer and several smaller-dollar “pay as you go” items, such as computer and vehicle replacements.
Finance officials are aiming for bonds with a 20-year term at 4 percent, but acknowledged that such information is subject to change with the market and the project’s goals.
“Thirty years is not off the table,” Zarnetske said.
The tax impact of the bonds on property owners shows that a typical home assessed at $352,000 would see a $78 tax increase in the first year of the program, and a $205 increase in the final year of 2025-26, Zarnetske said. Cumulatively, the increase would be almost $1,000, he said. Tax bills could increase anywhere from $1,500 to $2,200 over the six-year period, Zarnetske said.
“While the municipality can clearly deal with the debt,” he said. “It’s not clear everybody in town could afford the tax increase, whether it’s $1,500 or $2,000 necessary to support our debt service.”
One-third of households in town earn less than $50,000 annually, he noted.
“That’s a big chunk of our population living on relatively modest means,” he said. Those tax increases will be felt, he said, because it involves new debt that is not replacing older debt as it is being paid off.
The School Committee approved the capital plan at its Sept. 10 meeting. On Jan. 14, the committee will receive a feasibility study about the proposed Curtis Corner location for the high school. And on Jan. 22, the School Building Committee will meet and tour Curtis Corner Middle School.
“We understand the serious responsibility we have, because we are talking about the future,” Savastano said. “This is a commitment and a responsibility and we need to be very thoughtful as we work through it.”