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SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The South Kingstown Town Council on Monday approved a request to the state to be allowed to put the $85 million school facilities upgrades on the ballot for a referendum later this year.

The 4-1 vote is the latest step in the process of ultimately getting the school spending question before local voters. Councilor Deborah Bergner voted no, following through on concerns she has raised at previous meetings about the project.

“This is what’s getting submitted to the General Assembly for approval and authorization to put it on a referendum,” Council President Abel Collins said of the proposed legislation.

The vote also comes while the town’s Stage 2 necessity of construction application is before the state Department of Education.

The state’s School Building Authority will review the application and seek additional information is needed, Town Manager Rob Zarnetske said. The Building Authority will likely make its recommendation to the state Council on Education in March, he said.

“The Council on Education does not meet to formally accept or reject recommendations by the SBA until May,” he said.

But an April referendum could be offered, based on the strength of the Building Authority’s recommendation, Zarnetske said.

“The SBA recommendation is a strong indication of the state’s final action, but it is not the state’s final action. That doesn’t happen until May 17,” he said.

A referendum could happen at any time under the language provided, but Zarnetske said the most likely times would be either May or September, after summer.

Local officials will meet this week with the Department if Education to discuss the project.

“Our CIP (capital improvement plan) calls for $78 million in bond indebtedness to be taken on,” Zarnetske said. RIDE regulations say an $85 million project is eligible for almost $7 million in “up-front” money from the state, Zarnetske said.

“That gets us to our total project cost,” he said.

The Town Council would need to set the bond amount and referendum date at a later time. Monday’s vote was to request what’s typically called enabling legislation, solicitor Michael Ursillo said.

“Any municipality needs to obtain General Assembly approval for a bond,” he said. “Whether or not the municipality then decides to act on that legislation is up to the municipality … the council will still have to vote on an amount and a date, so it will come back to another public hearing. But if you don’t get the enabling legislation, you’re foreclosed from even setting it up.”

The question as written in the proposed legislation: “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?”

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