NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. —In their final meeting of the year, the North Kingstown Town Council set their sights on the decade ahead as they approved a proposal for future bond initiatives to revamp the school system as well as voted to award a new contract to DBVW Architects to explore options within the $5 million bond budget for Town Hall.
The meeting was a joint effort between the Town Council and the School Committee to discuss the budget for the department in the upcoming fiscal year and the goals the North Kingstown School Department has for it.
Superintendent Phil Auger began the meeting with his annual presentation to the council outlining the department’s budget considerations for Fiscal Year 2021. He anticipates a five percent increase in the cost of health care and two percent increase in wages as well as an increased staffing need for special education at the middle school level and an overall increase in mental health services offered to students, particularly at the high school.
He also said the district has upcoming negotiations with support staff that they hope to have completed over the summer to address increased staffing needs district wide, as well as a need to further incorporate technology and security needs into the regular budget.
“It’s amazing how technology is a part of everything that we do in the school department and it really has become a major piece of our infrastructure,” Auger said. “There’s so much that goes on with technology that it really needs to be reconsidered as a major piece of our infrastructure and something that we need regular funding for.”
Auger said the district was in early talks with the North Kingstown Bus Contractors Association regarding increasing the number of buses in the fleet as well as addressing the issue of early start times for the high school, something he said was a priority, but added that the district is still several months away from getting the finished study on busing.
The superintendent expressed concerns over the state aid projections, which he said were better than in years past but have a tendency to be unreliable as seen in several districts across the state as well as the increasing number of students in town attending charter schools.
“We’re also worried about increasing charter numbers,” Auger said. “Charter tuitions are a big concern for us, mainly because we feel we offer a great product in North Kingstown and we don’t feel that there is a big need for a taxpayer-funded alternative to schools that are already winning blue ribbons and being commended by the (Rhode Island) Department of Education.”
In particular, Auger cited Kingston Hill Academy in South Kingstown, which he said is looking to expand which could mean more taxpayer money out of the North Kingstown School District.
School Committee Vice Chairman Bob Jones seconded those concerns, saying that a specific objection the School Committee has is with certain charter school quotas.
“One of the charter schools we deal with was told by the state 10 years ago to end a quota practice and we have discovered that they have not stopped the quota practice, so for example they had almost 100 students from Providence apply and they took zero and they went down the wait list and they took North Kingstown kids over Providence kids, so that to me is more than just the state law issue,” Jones said. “We’ve entered in a complaint at the state (level) of when a school is taking kids from one district over a district that the state has identified is in need of taking over, I think that’s a problem when they were told 10 years ago to stop.”
Following the budget considerations, Auger laid out the district’s goal of long-term sustainability to maintain the district’s school buildings and to use the district’s infrastructure more effectively and efficiently while improving security, school start times, capacities and equity among the schools at their respective levels in regards to low-income and high-income areas of town.
The plans called for a “newer and fewer” approach to an overhaul of the district’s current school structure, particularly in regards to its schools and offices to ensure they have modern efficiencies, gymnasiums and preschool designated classrooms, with all three having the capacity to be expanded if needed.
Under the proposal, the district would go from eight schools to seven, with Wickford and Davisville Middle Schools being merged to create a new North Kingstown Middle School to be built on the current Wickford Middle School property, replacing the current building that first opened in 1932. Davisville Middle School would be converted into an elementary school to replace Forest Park Elementary, the district’s oldest and smallest elementary school, which would either be sold or re-purposed as office space for the district. Grade levels would also be affected, with elementary schools serving students in kindergarten through sixth grade while all of the town’s seventh and eighth graders would attend NKMS, keeping capacities around the same level.
The proposal also calls for an addition of a gymnasium, 10 pre-school classrooms and entrance for those new classrooms, something which Auger believes could ease the entrance and dismissal of pre-school students, as well as a potential for district office space.
All of the schools would see a new security vestibules at their entrance as well as need new roofs within the next 20 years.
The proposal could also see the districts offices at Quonset and Davisville Academy moved to Forest Park, however Auger noted such project would not be eligible for state housing aid, while building those offices as an expansion to Forest Cove or with the new North Kingstown Middle School would be eligible for such funds.
Auger believes the plan would help allow for improved school start times as well as efficiencies for heat and transportation costs while modernizing the district as a whole.
“This is a once in a generation plan we’re looking at for North Kingstown schools,” School Committee Chairman Greg Blasbalg said, echoing previous statements by Auger.
From there, the Town Council picked up discussion of the plan, with councilman Kerry McKay expressing concerns over the costs of the project as well as the population trending downward with age.
“The devil’s in the detail and it’s all about the numbers,” McKay said.
Auger said that North Kingstown’s school-aged population has stayed roughly the same over the past four years at about 4,000 students, bucking the trend of other towns, something he attributes in part to families moving to North Kingstown specifically for the school system.
The district laid out plans for previously approved bond projects over the next year, with plans this summer of finishing surfacing the track at North Kingstown High School to make it able to host RIIL-sanctioned events again as well as install an HV/AC system at the high school, something McKay mentioned he specifically wanted to make sure was done as he referred to the third floor of the building jokingly as “the sauna,” as well as replacing all windows at Davisville Middle School.
Further discussion regarding the proposals were held, with it coming up that the town has been issued $845,000 in PayGo from the state.
Other funding for the project would have to come from three separate voter-approved bonds, which wouldn’t hit the ballot until 2021 or 2022.
The Town Council then voted 5-0 to approve going forward with the plan, which Auger thanked them for and noted his support for installing a stoplight at the intersection in front of Hamilton Elementary School.
Both committees stayed seated for public comment, with school-related issues front and center. Both Kent Dresser and Kate Scott spoke to the need of a stoplight at Hamilton, with Dresser mentioning him and his children will still need to go through the intersection 2,500 times before they are done with the school and Scott saying she was nearly hit by a car there last Thursday.
Jacob Seaver expressed concerns with what he believed to be a lack of attention to Quidenessett Elementary School, saying as a former student there that improvements should be made there before turning attention to any other school and recalling the distractions of attending classes in a school built on an open classroom format.
The issue of the high school start time was prevalent during comment, with both David McCann and Michael Michaud advocating as parents to push the start times back from 7:05 on the basis of scientific evidence regarding teenage sleep patterns and North Kingstown High School senior and Student Union president Joe Vento calling on the school district to change the time as soon as possible, saying that if they truly prioritize it as they say, that they should act now.
Councilwoman Stacey Elliott expressed her support for changing the start time, while Auger said their report on it should be ready for the next School Committee meeting in January and Chief Operating Officer Mary King mentioned that new buses take roughly six to eight months to be delivered to the contractor, which affects the time table of the decision, but all agreed the time needs to be changed.
After public comment, the meeting was adjourned for a quick recess before the Town Council reconvened for the Consent Agenda. All items on the agenda were passed, and all but one passed unanimously, with the authorization of a purchase of a tracked loader vehicle passing 4-1. Welch was the sole dissenting vote over concerns of the vehicle’s reliability.
During Town Manager Ralph Mollis’s report, he invited North Kingstown Fire Chief Scott Kettelle to come up and address assistance to the firefighters grant program, as Kettelle mentioned federal grants the department planned on applying for new equipment.
During the Financial Director’s report, it was revealed that the town anticipates a surplus of $1,000,000 next year and that the Water Department would be receiving a refund of $148,000 from the state, though those funds can only be used by the Water Department.
Following that, the second major discussion of the night happened as the council addressed the awarding of a contract to DBVW Architects to look into the two previously approved options for renovations to Town Hall that fall within the $5 million bond budget, particularly the plan labeled Alternative 2.
Architect Micahel Viveiros of DBVW Architects represented the firm, and all councilors agreed that the firm was the one they wanted to continue with and that they would like to see a deal done sooner rather than later.
McKay stated his concerns regarding the price per square foot of the project after multiple reviews and plans, and said he wouldn’t vote in favor of any funding to look into the feasibility until he knew what exactly the building is needed for was laid out.
“So, what do we use the building for?,” McKay said, addressing both Viveiros and the rest of the council.
Welch backed McKay, though said his concern was less with the cost per square foot as much as it was the building’s purpose and saying as a former general contractor he always went into every project knowing the exact plans for the space.
McKay also expressed concern with splitting up staff between buildings, vowing he never would vote to do something like that again.
Elliott asked Viveiros questions regarding the best usage of the space for both town matters and community matters, and expressed the need for urgency on getting a deal done.
“We need to do something, because we owe this town to make some moves and get something going,” Elliott said. “We’ve had this money put aside, the $5 million for that bond was put aside last year and we have to do something (with it), we owe it to (the citizens of North Kingstown).”
Councilwoman Mary Brimer addressed her concerns regarding the need for a safety evaluation and Americans with Disabilities Act evaluation to make sure the building was completely up to code and that people would be able to evacuate a second floor council chamber quickly and safely. She also mentioned that she had spoken with oceanography professors from the University of Rhode Island recently who gave their concerns to her regarding renovating a structure for long-term use in such a low-lying flood area per FEMA.
Viveiros said the plan for the building would be to remove all non-original additions to Town Hall, something the council was in agreement with, as well as ensured as an architect that the second floor council chamber area would be safe in case of a fire with easily accessible escapes and a sprinkler system.
Following his comments, the council voted 5-0 to allow Viveiros and DBVW Architects to explore options and plans for Town Hall.
After the vote, all but one of the items of new business passed unanimously, with the exception of a request from Rhode Island Farm Incubator to submit legislation for tax-exempt status for their properties at Indian Corner Road and 132 Exeter Road. The council believed they didn’t have enough evidence in front of them to approve the measure and wanted to hear more from the organization on their plans for an organic farm, so they voted 5-0 to motion to continue to a later meeting.
Both the Town Council and School Committee are set to reconvene in the new year, with the Town Council’s next meeting scheduled for Jan. 13 and the School Committee on Jan. 14.