Council approves plan for historic Belknap School

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One of Johnston’s oldest school buildings is about to get a serious makeover.

While the building hasn’t hosted students in more than 80 years, the historic Belknap School located at 509 Greenville Avenue has seen time take its toll on the structure.

“It’s our history, and if we lose our history we really don’t remember where we came from,” said Mayor Joseph Polisena.

In a special meeting held on Monday, Polisena addressed the Town Council concerning Resolution 2017-47, which would award a bid and authorize the mayor to enter into an agreement for construction management services for the rehabilitation of the school.

The mayor highlighted the “good things” – similar construction projects – that his administration and the council have worked towards during his tenure, such as the construction of a new library, a new courthouse and council chamber, a new fire station on Route 6, a new school facilities building, and an athletic complex.

In April 2016, Mayor Polisena announced the Belknap School, in which the current building at the site dates back to 1892, would become the Johnston Land Trust office. The Land Trust’s mission is to ensure that land is preserved in town to be used for active and passive use. Prior to that, the property was under the care of the Johnston Historical Society. At the time, as the society was no longer using the building, the group wanted to give it back to the town.

“When we got it back, I said, ‘What are we going to do with this building?’ It’s a beautiful building, a one-room schoolhouse,” said Polisena, who added that he spoke with Judy Kawa, chairperson of the Johnston Land Trust Board, about housing the organization at the school. “The Land Trust is kind of like the ‘step child,’ if you will, when it comes to finding a place to meet, and I thought we’d probably be the first community to give them their own building.”

The mayor also noted that the building, once repaired, may be used for public meetings for the Boy and Girl Scouts, district meetings, elementary school field trips and other uses.

“What we decided to do was, obviously, do a renovation. This will be of no cost to the taxpayers, by the way, technically,” said Polisena. “What we’re going to do is, some of the bond money we borrowed for open space, [Town Solicitor] Mr. [William] Connelly did some checking, and legally we can use it to fix up that building. If not, the building would just rot away.”

According to the mayor, the town would be penalized if the proceeds left over from the bonds were not used.

Calling the current status of the building “deplorable,” from damage from squirrels, downspouts and gutters in disrepair, to an antiquated heating system and oil tank, the mayor indicated that the repairs would include new architectural shingles, replacement windows, new heating and air conditioning, foundation repairs, updated electrical systems, bathroom tiles, paint and a donated a handicap ramp.

“I will tell you that Citizens Bank, along with the laborers…they’ve decided to do this for us at no cost to us. That’s about a $35,000 to $40,000 job, they’re going to put the railings, they’re going to put the ramp, they’re going to widen the door,” said Polisena, who added that the bank employees have agreed to volunteer their time to assist with painting as well. “That’s a freebie and that’s a good freebie.”

Polisena believed, though he thought he may be premature with the announcement, that Di Gregorio Corporation would replace the driveway/parking lot area of the facility. The lot has been a source of contention for nearby neighbors during the sewer and water line extension project on Greenville Avenue.

“We allowed them to use that driveway, and it got kind of dug up, so they’ll do that once they pave the road next year,” said the mayor.

Twenty-two church pews, purchased at $100 each from a church in New Jersey, were recently purchased to be used in the schoolhouse. Ben Nascenzi, Johnston’s building and zoning official, picked them up with the assistance of members of the Department of Public Works.

The mayor told the council that he would work to ensure the lowest bidders are approved to do the work, which he estimated would cost around $250,000. He stated that the work should be completed before the end of the year. The resolution received unanimous approval from the council.

“I’m excited about having our own home,” said Judy Kawa, chairperson of the Johnston Land Trust Board. “Now we can display everything we have and we’re very excited about it.”

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