New highs in spotlight

Forum focuses on $350M bond issue for new Pilgrim, Toll Gate

Posted 8/10/22

Can Warwick afford two new high schools, or can Warwick not afford the new schools?

Both views were presented Tuesday at a forum co-sponsored by the Warwick Beacon, Warwick Rotary Club and the …

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New highs in spotlight

Forum focuses on $350M bond issue for new Pilgrim, Toll Gate


Can Warwick afford two new high schools, or can Warwick not afford the new schools?

Both views were presented Tuesday at a forum co-sponsored by the Warwick Beacon, Warwick Rotary Club and the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce. The argument that the cost of the new schools, projected at $350 million, would tax residents out of their homes, if, in fact, they could be built for that in the face of soaring building costs, was made by citizen activist Rob Cote.

Cote isn’t opposed to new schools. But citing other financial pressures on the city, he reasoned the community is not equipped to bear the burden of the additional debt. In addition, he argued the city council failed to sufficiently research the impact of the plan before granting approval for the $350 million bond issue to appear on the November ballot. Other than a handful of school administrators at the forum held at the Crowne Plaza, he was the only one to have read the more than 2,000-page submission to the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Arguments for the schools came from parents, educators and the business community. They cited conditions of the existing schools and how the environment of classrooms and a school – the presence of natural light and spaces where students can collaborate on problem solving – can enhance learning. They also spoke of community pride and what new schools would mean in making Warwick a desirable place to life and raise a family. 

While the audience of about 90 leaned to building the schools, the uncertainty of whether they could be built for $350 million was raised when Cote cited the escalating cost of materials and how the cost of schools he’s involved in building have soared.

They can be built for $350M

Dr. Joseph da Silva, coordinator of school building authority with the Rhode Island Department of Education and one of six panelists to give opening remarks, confirmed Cote’s appraisal of the construction environment and the rising cost of materials. However, he pointed to the role him and RIDE play in school building projects and how they have successfully adhered to not only the budget but also completion of those schools on time. He didn’t anticipate it would be easy, but he did say the schools could be built for $350 million. 

da Silva said the “road has been cleared” for the state to reimburse 52 percent of the cost of the schools,  $234,504,115, handing Superintendent Lynn Dambruch a letter of commitment. State reimbursement was instrumental to arguments Dambruch and David Testa, vice chair of the school committee, made for bond passage.

Testa talked about how the department started discussions about the future of the high schools in 2019, held forums to gain public input and considered options including that of a single school.

“One high school for 2,200 students was unanimously rejected for a variety of reasons, not the least of which included educational concerns, where to site a building that large, and traffic concerns around that. If anyone has been to Pilgrim or Vets during drop-off or pick up, you know very well how congested it is – a school with twice the population would be much worse,” he said.

Might the city build one new school and wait to build the other?

“In my humble opinion, replacing one of the two high schools without a firm, date-certain, guarantee for when the other school gets replaced, seriously compromises the passage of any bond referendum. At the end of the day, we have a ‘bird in the hand’– the opportunity to build two new high schools and get reimbursed, nearly in full, for one of them. We should take advantage of that,” he said.

Dambruch reasoned with the rate of reimbursement the city would get two new schools for the price of one and that it is Warwick’s turn to take advantage of the state school funding that voters have approved.

“With at least 10 surrounding communities in the process of building and improving school facilities, I feel like now it is Warwick’s turn,” she said.

Panelist City Finance Director Peder Schaefer gave a projection of what the added debt of borrowing $350 million over 20 years would have on the city budget and the taxpayers.

How it’s going to impact city finances

Schaefer said the fiscal note he prepared in June for the City Council computed the annual debt service costs of both the unissued $56 million in school renovation debt authorized in 2020 after 35 percent state reimbursement, and two new high schools after 50 percent state reimbursement, which has subsequently been raised to 52.5 percent.

“The annual net debt service cost for just the two new high schools was estimated at $13 million,” Schaefer said.

“If interest rates returned to the lows of a year ago, the annual costs could be as low as $11 million. Not including all other costs of the city, this would require an increase in the tax levy of over 5 percent. It is unlikely that these full costs would be part of the city budget until 2027,” he said.

Schaefer also addressed the question of what would happen should in the process of building the schools the cost exceed the $350 million bond.

He said the School Committee would not execute contracts without available resources or expectation the city could end up with two half completed schools. “Rather, the School Committee would have to come back to the Mayor and Council and ask for another referendum to increase the spending authority. It is also possible that the School Committee could come back with a proposal to downsize the scope of the project, but there would be many hurdles to this including approval by the RI State Department of Education, the Mayor, the City Council and the General Assembly before the project could be downsized and the bonds used for something other than building two new high schools,” Schaefer said.

Retired Supreme Court Justice and former Warwick Mayor Francis X. Flaherty moderated the forum that opened with remarks by the six panelists and was followed by about 90 minutes of questions and statements from the audience. Flaherty didn’t limit statements, allowing for exchange with the panelists and keeping the speaker on topic.

What schools mean to city

Katie Kernizan of Saam Architecture and Warwick Realtor Phil Slocum highlighted the potential impact of the schools on students as well as the larger community. Referring to schematics of the new schools that would be built on the athletic fields of Pilgrim and Toll Gate, Kernizan talked of the “flow” of the buildings. Once the new schools are completed, the existing schools would be demolished with athletic fields being built there.

Questions from the audience centered on traffic flow of the new buildings and, in the case of the new Pilgrim, whether it could be repositioned so as to give the abutting neighborhood a greater buffer. As it is Kernizan said architects “squeezed” the building into site, yet were able to include a 60 foot perimeter that would be planted around both school sites. Former teachers and Pilgrim graduates spoke of the school’s existing conditions and what new facilities would do to restore Pilgrim pride.

In her opening remarks Dambruch talked of the need to move ahead with new schools.

“As superintendent, I am deeply concerned over the current conditions of Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools,” she said.

“I would never come before the Warwick community and ask for voters to support a bond if I truly thought that the schools were best suited for our students and would be able to accommodate 21st Century teaching and learning. After decades of repairs and minor renovations, our high schools have come to the very end of their useful life. Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools can no longer be fixed with a Band-Aid approach,” she said.

 Declaring his love for the city and the attributes of the city, Slocum pointed out that month after month and year after year, Warwick leads all other municipalities in the sale of single family homes. He said this is a demonstration of the city’s appeal. Yet, he said schools play an important role in how homebuyers select a community, noting that Barrington, East Greenwich and North Kingstown are preferred communities when it comes to schools. He sees new high schools as enhancing Warwick property values and the desirability to live here.

If there was a hitch to the forum, it was the absence of a sound system as forum organizers arrived at the Crowne, the result of miscommunication over whether the event would be live streamed as initially planned. When that was abandoned the hotel was not informed an audio system was needed.

With half an hour to the opening of the program, Jo-Anne Schofield, president and CEO of Mentor RI connected with Adam Ramsey of Advanced Production and Design who was there in time. A video of the forum will be posted on the Beacon website when finalized.

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