Johnston taxpayers will likely go to the ballot box in March to decide whether to fund $215 million in new school building projects.
The School Committee voted Wednesday night to retain the SLAM Collaborative architectural firm to take them into Stage III of the school construction process.
And following a vote by the Town Council Wednesday night, Johnston will now seek legislation from the Rhode Island General Assembly, which will clear the path to taking a $215 million bond to the town’s voters in a referendum.
Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. said voters would likely cast their votes on the bond in a referendum held some time in March.
“This is an exciting time for all of us,” said Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena. “I know $215 million sounds like a lot, but quite frankly it’s not, if you look at the reimbursements.”
Polisena urged Town Council and the School Committee to act quickly, in order to snag a favorable reimbursement ratio from the state and favorable interest rates on borrowing.
“We’re looking at 56-57 percent reimbursement on the dollar,” Polisena said.
The district hopes to build a new Early Childhood Center and a new Elementary School, make major renovations at the Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School and the Johnston High School.
“This is long overdue,” Polisena told the joint session of both local governmental boards. “You know, we’re sitting in a building here now, that next year, will be 50 years I graduated from this school.”
Town Council and the School Committee held the rare joint session of both boards in the auditorium of the aging high school. Both boards announced the meeting on Monday, just 48 hours prior to the meeting, the minimum amount of lead-time required by law.
The meeting was sparsely attended by the public. Only a handful of auditorium seats were filled. Nobody stood to speak out against the project during the School Committee meeting, which began at 6:15 p.m., and there was no public comment permitted during the Town Council portion, which started at 7 p.m.
Johnston resident Debbie McCauley arrived late and missed the meeting. She said she had questions, and hoped to speak out against the project before votes were taken.
“I wanted to hear them explain how they’re going to pay for it,” she said, standing outside the aging high school. “$215 million is a lot of money. I’m a senior citizen and I have no children.”
McCauley entered the school to seek out her Town Council representative.
“I’ve still got some questions,” she said, heading for the door.
The town needs legislation passed in order to take the bond vote to the people.
“This is great,” Polisena said. “I think, I’m sure, our delegation, both our senators and our reps will be glad to put this in. And we’re just looking forward to moving ahead and getting reimbursement from the Rhode Island Department of Education.”
The construction project would be the town’s biggest education facility overhaul in its history.
The town’s legal counsel, William J. Conley Jr., was on hand to answer questions on the impending bond issue vote.
“It’s supported by legislation that we will request of the General Assemblies as soon as they go into session,” Conley explained. “We appreciate having council act upon this now, so that there is no delay, as soon as the General Assembly goes back into session.”
Polisena seemed to be optimistic the state legislature may go back into session early.
“Mr. Conley, if they happen to go back, let’s say, in a month, a couple of weeks or so, we can get this passed then also, right?” Polisena asked. “I’m sure our senators and our reps will put this in quickly.”
District 5 Town Council Member Robert Civetti sought clarification on the town’s debt limit. He suspected seeking legislation for approval would override any potential debt limit hurdles. Conley told him that was correct.
Polisena repeated his call to act fast.
“The interest rates are starting to go up,” Polisena said into a microphone while standing in front of the stage. “We want to try to do this, as quickly as possible, so our interest rates aren’t crazy. So I’ll say a Hail Mary, that the General Assembly goes back early.”
Polisena did some quick math.
“From what I understand, if we are reimbursed 57 cents on the dollar, I think it’s only going to cost us around $93 million,” he told the boards.
Derek Osterman, Director at Colliers Project Leaders, told the School Committee that they’re getting a good deal on design services.
“The motion before you is the award of design services for Stage III, the total amount is in the amount of $14,666,100,” he told the School Committee. “This represents, depending upon which project, between the high sevens and low eight percent of the construction costs … We’ve seen (architectural services for other school building projects) up as high as 10, or even 12 percent.”
He called the percentage ratio “a great value.”
District 3 School Committee Member David Santilli has been the town’s only elected representative who has expressed concerns publicly.
Last month he said the School Committee has had little to no chance to weigh in on project details. Last night, he asked Osterman for more documentation.
“Can we get some documentation as to what you are doing?” He asked. He then told Osterman to “make sure that it’s sent to the school department.”
Santilli has clearly stated that he supports the school project, but that he wished the process had been more transparent. He voted with the rest of the School Committee to “approve architectural services for Stage III of the School Construction Project.”
Town Council unanimously issued a resolution “supporting and approving the Johnston Public School District’s Necessity of School Construction Application to RIDE for Stage II approval.” The school district had already submitted Stage II to RIDE, but needed Town Council’s stamp of approval, according to DiLullo.
Town Council voted unanimously on a resolution “memorializing the General Assembly to enact Legislation authorizing the Town, with the approval of the qualified electors, to issue bonds and notes in an amount not to exceed Two Hundred Fifteen Million Dollars ($215,000,000) for the Purpose of Construction, Additions, Renovation, Improvement, Alteration, Repair Furnishing And Equipping Of Schools and School Facilities in the Town and all costs related thereto.”
Early plans drawn up by the SLAM Collaborative call for building the new Johnston Early Childhood Center (ECC) on the current site of the Sarah E. Barnes Elementary School, which will be demolished.
The new ECC will cost an estimated $28,600,000 and is tentatively slated to open in the summer of 2024.
The plans call for closing and then demolishing or selling all of the town’s current elementary schools — Graniteville ECC Annex, Barnes, Brown Avenue, Thornton and Winsor Hill.
The large consolidated, new elementary school will be built to educate 1,100 students in grades 1-4, and is planned for construction on town property just north of the Johnston High School.
The elementary school will cost an estimated $84,350,000, and is tentatively scheduled to open in late summer 2024.
The district will likely tackle the new ECC and elementary school first, and then move on to the high school renovation, and then the middle school project, according to DiLullo.
SLAM has proposed more than $39 million in renovations to the Ferri Middle School and a $57 million facelift at the high school.
The high school is slated for a late summer of 2024 unveiling, and the middle school repairs should be complete by late summer of 2025.
The architecture firm, SLAM, made a visual presentation of the plans at a joint meeting between the Town Council and School Committee last month.
“SLAM, that’s a very unusual name,” Polisena said Wednesday night. “It’s an acronym for something?”
“It is,” said a voice in the crowd, a representative from the firm.
“What is it for?” Polisena asked.
“Stecker Labau Arneill McManus,” the voice answered.
“Okay,” Polisena replied. “Anyway …”
Outside the meeting, the mayor’s son, Town Council Vice President Joseph Polisena Jr., said he expects the bond issue will earn the approval of Johnston voters when they go to the polls.
“I do,” he said. “I think people realize the importance of schools in the community, whether you have children in the school system or not. Better schools mean higher property values.”
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