The taxpayers of Johnston will eventually decide whether to fund $215 million in new school building projects.
The district hopes to build a new Early Childhood Center, a new Elementary School for all students in grades 1 through 4, and make major renovations at the Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School and Johnston High School.
The new Johnston Early Childhood Center (ECC) has been pitched for construction at the current site of the Sarah E. Barnes Elementary School, and will be built to educate approximately 359 pre-K through Kindergarten students.
The new ECC will cost an estimated $28,600,000, and is tentatively slated to open in the summer of 2024.
Architectural firm, the SLAM Collaborative, delivered a “visual presentation” of the proposed new school projects at a special School Committee meeting held prior to Wednesday night’s Johnston Town Council public hearing and special meeting to vote on a tax deal with Amazon.
With the Tax Stabilization Agreement in place, the town is expecting millions more in annual tax revenue over the next 20 years, creating an environment ripe for new school building projects.
The school building proposal calls for closing, and then demolishing or selling, all of the town’s current elementary schools.
If approved, the Barnes Elementary School will be demolished to build the new Early Childhood Center.
The Graniteville ECC Annex, Brown Avenue, Thornton and Winsor Hill elementary schools will all be vacated, and could eventually be sold by the town.
The proposal calls for building the new Johnston Elementary School on town property just north of the Johnston High School. The large consolidated, new elementary school will be built to educate 1,100 students in grades 1-4.
The elementary school will cost an estimated $84,350,000, and is tentatively scheduled to open in late summer 2024.
SLAM has proposed more than $39 million in renovations to the Ferri Middle School and a $57 million facelift at the high school.
Planners hope to unveil the new middle school in late summer of 2025, and the modernized high school in late summer of 2024.
The middle school will be built to accommodate 1,066 students in grades 5-8. The high school will cover approximately 799 students in grades 9-12.
The plans call for new heating, air conditioning, ventilation, science labs and more at both schools.
Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. said the current early childhood center, attached to the middle school, will become a fifth grade academy, for the district’s transitional-age students.
The state is currently reimbursing school building projects at around 37 cents on the dollar, but up to 57 cents on the dollar.
“Because of the state incentives, the town could receive between 50 and 60 percent reimbursement,” DiLullo said last week.
The four major school renovation projects would be the largest education facility renovation plan in the town’s history.
“This is really a phenomenal feat that we’re about to embark on,” DiLullo said. “Essentially the school will have four like new educational facilities.”
The town has been spending capital on decaying old buildings. A swelling school budget was mostly to blame for this year’s tax increase, according to Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena.
“Now is the time to stop spending resources on buildings that served their purpose,” DiLullo said. “To fully take advantage of these reimbursements we must act now.”
Voters will have to approve at least one bond issue to fund the schools.
Polisena stood to speak during Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting in the Johnston High School auditorium. He said he wanted to address rumors regarding charter schools becoming new tenants at the old, soon-to-be-vacated school buildings.
“That ain’t happening while I’m mayor,” Polisena told the crowd.
The plans for the district’s new buildings and renovations came together quickly.
School Committee member David Santilli raised concerns during Tuesday night’s regularly scheduled meeting.
“This is the first I’m dealing with any of this,” he said. “It should have been laid out before the School Committee. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea.”
Santilli also noted the project’s increasing price tag, which has swollen from $190 million just last week, to this week’s $215 million price tag.
“I expect it to go to a bond issue, and I expect it to pass,” Santilli said after Tuesday’s meeting.
Several current school employees stood to voice support for the project after Wednesday night’s presentation.
Winsor Hill teacher Sandra Farone, a 31-year Johnston educator, who teaches at the school she once attended, said the district badly needs new facilities.
“We are in dyer need of upgrades at our schools,” she told the crowd. “The time to act is now while the money is out there.”
Editor’s Note: In next week’s edition, the Sun Rise will break down each school building proposal in detail and weigh support and concerns over project scope and funding.