PAWTUCKET — As the ambitious, multi-phase proposal to overhaul the district's school buildings is presented to the full School Committee tonight, both city and school leaders agree that a team effort is needed to bring the project to fruition.
For the past year and a half, a facilities subcommittee has been meeting with the SMMA architectural engineering firm and Schools Superintendent Deborah Cylke to develop a master plan for renovating and improving the city's public schools. The proposed plan contains some dramatic changes, particularly at the high school and middle school level, designed to address both rising enrollment projections and modern educational standards.
Under the proposed plan, a 47,000-square-foot addition would be built on to the Jenks/JMW Arts High School to create a centralized city high school. Shea High School would be re-purposed as a middle school and Tolman High School would be sold or re-used for another purpose by the city. As part of the plan, a districtwide middle school concept for Grades 6, 7 and 8 would be implemented, with Shea, Slater and Goff functioning as middle schools.
Other highlights include the construction of a new and larger Winters Elementary School at the existing site and extensive renovations to all of the elementary schools. The plan, which carries a price tag of about $243 million, is designed to be done in three phases over a 10-year period. The city would seek bonds at each stage to pay for the project, and is also counting on receiving 75 percent reimbursement from the state to defray costs.
Cylke and those on the facilities subcommittee acknowledge there is still a long way to go before even the first phase gets started. Indeed, the scenario of closing Tolman and opening a new central high school isn't scheduled to take place until the last phase, which would be 2024.
There is also the vital matter of seeing how much bonding the city can take on and the associated tax burden to residents, even with the state's 75 percent reimbursement rate.
Taking priority in the first phase are renovations to the two elementary schools, Potter-Burns and Nathanael Greene, where the ceilings are in dire need of repair. Contractors have done stop gap measures at both of these schools, either removing fragile ceiling material or shoring it up, to make them safe for students to return this fall, but school officials are hoping to be able to seek bond approval through a referendum on the November 2014 election ballot.
The first step in the approval process is winning over the entire School Committee. Although school board members have been briefed on some points of the plan, only two of its active members, Michael Araujo and Joanne Bonollo, are on the Facilities Sub-Committee (Araujo is chairman). Former School Committeeman Raymond Noonan also serves on the facilities subcommittee.
Cylke said that when the School Committee gives its blessing, the master plan will be submitted to the Rhode Island Department of Education for review. After that, it must be approved by the state Board of Regents.
Cylke noted that a formal presentation will also be made to the City Council. Having this body on board, along with Mayor Donald Grebien and his administration, will be necessary in order to win the approval from the General Assembly to place the bond request on the ballot. Planning
Director Barney Heath has been representing the city's side on the facilities subcommittee and the group has also been working closely with RIDE officials throughout the planning process, she said.
Cylke also said that a meeting has been scheduled with the city's bond counsel and the Grebien Administration's financial team to discuss how much bonding debt can be taken on. She said the city's capacity to bond and the availability of state funds are "absolutely factors" in how the renovation project is planned out over the coming decade. "We realize that the timing of some of these improvements might have to be adjusted to be affordable," she said.
Cylke acknowledged that it is not known at this point how much money the state will have available for school construction projects once the 2014 moratorium is lifted. Yet, she said she is remaining optimistic, noting that the city can't seek any reimbursement at all without first having a RIDE-approved master plan.
"This is not a sub-committee decision. It's a plan that must meet RIDE's "necessity of construction guidelines," said Cylke. "What RIDE wants to know is, 'does your plan address the identified problems, which, in our case, means 'does it address our over-capacity and aging buildings?'"
Director of Administration Antonio Pires said that both he and Grebien, along with Finance Director Joanna L'Heureux will be fully involved in the specifics of the plan once it is adopted by the School Committee. He noted that there could be no legislative action to put the project forward on the ballot without the proposal first being fully vetted by the administration and City Council.
Pires said that while the total cost estimate being discussed now is $243 million, it could likely balloon to $300 million once construction actually starts. He also said he is concerned about the interest on the bond payments, which could potentially reach as high as $25 million a year, even with a 20-year bond. "That's a big number. Even with state reimbursement, that could mean $6 or $7 million of local support going into the payment of those bonds in one year. This project requires a lot of local vetting," he stated.
City Council President David Moran said he had been aware of some of the main points of the proposed master plan, such as the discussions about a centralized high school. He said he expects the entire council to be given a detailed presentation of the project once it is has been approved by the School Committee.
Moran "It all comes out of the same budget, and is something we have to sign off on, so I am assuming it's going to come to us at some point. I would think we will all definitely have input on it." He added that he thinks it would be helpful to have the council be part of the process sooner rather than later, once an agreed-to plan is passed by the School Committee.