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A controversial $85 million bond proposal to reconfigure and upgrade South Kingstown schools was soundly rejected by voters Tuesday. At left, South Kingstown School Committee member Paula Whitford casts her ballot at the SK High School polling station.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected South Kingstown’s request for up to $85 million in bonds for a sweeping school facilities improvement program.

The unofficial results posted Tuesday night on the town’s website showed 5,244 votes against the plan, 1,967 in favor of it.

The vote marked the conclusion of months of planning and public outreach efforts by supporters of the project to move the high school from Columbia Street to the Curtis Corner Middle School building and to renovate and expand it.

Middle schoolers at Curtis Corner would have moved to Broad Rock Middle School, and each of the town’s elementary schools would have undergone smaller-scale improvements.

“Tonight was a tough loss and there are so many emotions,” School Committee Chairperson Emily Cummiskey said. “I am so sad for what could have been for the students of South Kingstown.”

The town has a Stage II necessity of construction application currently before the state Department of Education’s School Building Authority for the project. The town submitted it in mid-February.

Stage II approval would make the town eligible for up to 50% reimbursement from the state for construction costs. That would have included a 35% base reimbursement and potentially another 15% for “bonus” incentives, leaving the town responsible for about $42.5 million over 20 years.

The project was set to move forward only if voters approved the bond referendum and state authorities approved the application for reimbursement.

By rejecting the bond, any requests for state reimbursement would have to begin again at Stage I. The School Building Committee would have to repeat the process of reviewing the school buildings and the required work. The projects could be included in the Capital Improvement Program each year, but they would not be addressed in a timely manner, according to school officials.

The school department has spelled out some consequences of having to re-submit a school building application.

The town would forego $10 million in state aid, because it would no longer meet the deadline to be eligible for the additional 15% in state reimbursements. The state’s schedule for submission also means that the town, should it desire to submit an alternative project, would be facing a delay of at least a year for a new state approval under a ‘best case’ scenario, with another bond vote after that, perhaps in fall 2022. During that time, costs for construction would increase as well, officials said.

The campaign for the bond became one of the most polarizing issues in South Kingstown in recent years. A vocal segment of the town’s population opposed it – although most didn’t offer the traditional argument that such a project introduces higher taxes. Many opponents said, rather, that the plan was not the right fit for the town’s schools.

Resident Greg Sweet, who attended most meetings about the project and often posed questions or comments about the plan, was one.

“For me this isn’t a win or lose but a statement from residents, we can do better,” he said. “Let’s take a couple of weeks off to decompress and gather our thoughts, we all need that. Then a group can be assembled to devise a game plan that allows input from everyone. Let’s work as a community so we can give our kids the best education we can afford.”

Supporters such as Madeline Clappin are concerned that by voting no, the town has missed out on a singular opportunity.

“It seems we are in danger of voting down a bond that would provide more investment in our local education system than we’ll likely ever see again,” she said Tuesday on Facebook. “I attended SKHS a decade ago and it was an under-performing, and frankly decrepit, building to be in every day. Can you imagine it in 10 years when we are still arguing over the smallest details about ways to fix it?”

Tuesday’s vote also might have been a repudiation of the bond campaign as much as it was a rejection of the facilities plan.

Critics questioned several aspects of the efforts made to get approval of the bond, including the school department’s hiring of a public relations firm.  

A boiling point came last week, when the town learned that mailers asking residents to support the measure were addressed to their school-age children, and that the AFL-CIO, which sent them, had received directory information about the students from an as-yet-to-be-named source.

The Town Council has initiated an investigation into the matter, and both the council and School Committee held closed-door meetings about it on April 30.

“In all the vitriol, I fear that as a community we have lost the forest for the trees,” Town Council President Abel Collins, who graduated from the high school and Curtis Corner in the 1990s, wrote in a lengthy post about the plan before the vote.

Collins said the town is still faced with tens of millions of dollars worth of necessary upgrades and too much space.

“Without the need to abide by the state’s newer and fewer guidelines, we’ll at least have more say in the final outcome, but it will probably come down to cosmetic improvements at Columbia Street and Broad Rock, closing Curtis Corner, and some improvements to the elementary schools. Like a watered down version of the first stage 2 submission, but more expensive.”

Collins said he fears a “negative feedback loop” in local education.

“High performing students leave the district for private schools, charters, or other public schools’ CTE programs, and the performance of students who remain consequently suffers, which in turn increases the pressure for more kids to leave. For decades, SK has rightly taken immense pride in its school system. When I was going through SKHS, I could not have gotten a better education at any of R.I.’s elite private schools. This is still the residual image many of us have of our schools, but in truth we are no longer in the top tier. We need to act now to reclaim that level of excellence. Our kids deserve it.”

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