They literally went “back to the drawing board.”
Johnston’s grand plan to upgrade all the town’s public school buildings changed radically Tuesday night.
While the new elementary school project will proceed, the Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School renovation and new Early Childhood Center have been scrapped. Instead, the town’s eighth-graders will be moving to a new Johnston High School building, planned for construction surrounding the existing gym and opening to students in Fall 2027.
“We are going to build a new high school,” Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. told a joint meeting of the School Committee and Town Council Tuesday evening.
Polisena cited $50 million in unexpected school costs as the driving force behind the alterations of the original plan — a new Early Childhood Center as well as a new town-wide elementary school, and major renovations to the middle and high schools — pitched to voters before they approved a $215 million bond referendum.
“Unfortunately COVID happened and changed the game for us significantly,” Polisena told the packed house of school faculty, administrators and members of the School Building Committee. “It was $30 million in increased construction costs for all those projects. And an additional $20 million in interest costs, pre and post-COVID. So a total of $50 million.”
The new plan calls for the creation of an “eighth-grade academy” within the new high school building.
As a town councilman, Polisena first proposed the complete overhaul of every school in town, in essence, impacting the educational experience of every public school student in Johnston. He helped shepherd the referendum through the ballot box, alongside his father, former Mayor Joseph M. Polisena, promising a “no tax increase bond” that would be fully funded by the incoming Amazon project.
“We have started a process, and we’re well in the middle of it, of a new elementary school that is going up, full steam ahead,” Polisena said. “But what we had to do is figure out the second half of the project. And there were two options. So option one was to cut the project by the overages … and hope we have somewhat decent schools. Or option number two, which is to go back to the drawing board on the second half and come up with something new. I opted for the latter.”
The mayor’s team has been meeting behind closed doors with the architects and financial planners, looking for a solution to the $50 million in cost and interest rate overruns.
“So what I did is I brought my administration together,” Polisena explained.
Ultimately, he asked, “How can we allocate this money so the citizens of Johnston can really utilize it to the best of their abilities?”
“And the plan that we have come up with is to, again, full steam ahead on the elementary school, but in lieu of a new Early Childhood Center and upgrades to Ferri and Johnston High, we are going to build a new high school,” Polisena announced. “And I know it seems very grand, and a lot of you are probably asking yourself how are we building a new high school now? It seems like a very very pricey project. And you’ll see from the people that come up here tonight, it’s simply a reallocation of the dollars.”
Polisena reiterated his promise that Johnston taxpayers will not see a rate increase linked to the school bond.
“I have to do this project within the specific amount of the bond,” he told the committees. “That bond was structured so it would be a no-tax increase bond. As everyone knows, the Amazon money will be funding all of this.”
Polisena committed all of the income generated by the Amazon project off Hartford Avenue, which has yet to set a firm opening date, to fund the bond payments.
“So I am allocating all the Amazon money for this project; at least all of the Amazon money during my tenure as mayor, for eight years, and I really think it’s for good use,” Polisena said. “I think the high school is our flagship school in the town. And I know there have been significant problems with losing kids that go from here to other high schools.”
Holly Demers Sawyer, associate director of project management for Colliers, the town’s capital project managers, said the cost of the entire project — including just the new elementary and high schools — has been estimated around $220.3 million (about $22.4 million more than the town has left to spend from the bond). The town’s financial advisers plan to use a variety of “funding mechanisms” to cover the difference.
The town expects to get more than $100 million in state reimbursements for the project.
Plans for the new high school still need to clear some Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) hurdles. The architectural drafts are early and representatives from the SLAM Collaborative (the town’s hired architectural and design firm) said workers drilled test bores at the site over the past week, checking to see if the ground could support the new high school.
If all goes as planned, Cathie Ellithorpe, Principal of the SLAM Collaborative, provided new estimates for opening the new buildings — Fall 2026 for the new elementary school and Fall 2027 for the new high school.
Editor’s Note: Watch for future stories with more details from Johnston’s evolving school projects. Next week we'll look at the planned shuffle of some grades to new schools, and make a closer examination of the funding for this new proposal.
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