NEWS

New schools now up to voters

Posted 6/8/22

By ALEX MALM

Barring the General Assembly not giving their blessing, a $350 million bond question to build two new high schools will be on the ballot in Warwick this November.

On Monday night …

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NEWS

New schools now up to voters

Posted

By ALEX MALM

Barring the General Assembly not giving their blessing, a $350 million bond question to build two new high schools will be on the ballot in Warwick this November.

On Monday night the Council voted 7-1 in favor of placing the question on the ballot with Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur being the lone dissenting vote.

The process began three years ago when community forums took place to decide on whether or not the district should go for building one or two high schools or to renovate.

Last year the district developed a plan to renovate Toll Gate and Pilgrim however it was denied by the Rhode Island Department of Education. 

In May the proposal to move forward with putting two new schools on the ballot was approved by RIDE.

The projected cost for the new schools is $350 million, according to Director of Capital and Construction Projects Steve Gothberg.

On May 17 the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education approved to reimburse a percentage of the cost based on a total project cost of $314.5 million. 

Gothberg said that currently the maximum amount the district can receive from RIDE for reimbursements is 50 percent. If RIDE approves reimbursement at that amount taxpayers would be on the hook for is around $192.7 million.

It was pointed out by Gothberg that the district was also awarded about $14.5 million in “pay as you go funds,” which would allow the city to reduce the issuance of bonds for a savings.

There are also some unknowns that would allow the city to bond for less, including another possible 2.5 percent in reimbursements from RIDE.

“When the state commissioned Jacobs Engineering to evaluate all school buildings they gave each building a Facilities Condition Index, FCI score, anything 65 or over would receive an additional 5 percent  reimbursement bonus to be replaced,” said Gothberg. “ We expect that Pilgrim’s score will raise from 56 to 65 or above and be eligible for that 5 percent  bonus. As Warwick is capped at 52.5  percent  we would only gain the 2.5 percent  as we are already eligible for 3 5 percent  bonuses bringing us to 50 percent.” 

Gothberg said that the extra 2.5 percent would equal around $7.8 million.

Additionally, a statewide bond is on the ballot and if approved it would give the school district an additional $9.5 million in pay as you go funds.

Warwick resident Rob Cote, who has worked on many new school projects and a devote follower of city government, said he has seen major increases in costs for the projects he is working on.

Cote also noted that RIDE only reimburses based on a $551 per square foot cost while the projected cost is $694.

“That leaves $70.2 million on the table,” said Cote.

Cote said that technology and furniture aren’t reimbursable which equates to approximately $12 million.

Ladouceur said he thinks more information is needed before the Council could vote to send the question to the ballot including what the tax rate will be if approved. Ladouceur said he is also concerned with unanswered questions around the project's finances.

“I’m more concerned now than when I walked into this chamber,” said Ladouceur.


Is $350 million enough?

One of the biggest questions that have been asked throughout the process is whether $350 million is enough to build new schools.

Earlier this year Picozzi said he doesn’t think a $350 million price tag is enough to build two new schools right now due to inflation and supply chain issues.

Picozzi on Tuesday said that the bond specifically prohibits “bond premiums” which would essentially allow for the project to continue at a higher amount than the $350 million bond should it be approved. That would mean if the schools cost more than $350 million additional bonding would be needed.

“You would have to go back to the voters again,” said Finance Director Peder Schaefer.

Under the guidelines school districts have five years from the time their application is approved by the Rhode Island Department of Education to complete the project in order to receive state reimbursements.

In the case for Warwick, if the application is approved in May the district would have five years starting Dec. 31 to complete the project.

Gothberg In April said that if the project is delayed then he doesn’t think there is enough time to complete the schools. He said that it takes about a year for the final design to be completed, about two years to build new schools, six months to tear the old school downs and the rest of the time would be allocated to building new athletic fields and other site improvements needed that can’t be done until the old schools are torn down.

Gothberg said that any delays could be “catastrophic.”

“In my opinion it would essentially shut it down,” said Gothberg.

Gothberg also said that he doesn’t know if the costs would go down if they delayed the project.

“I don’t see things getting better,” said Gothberg.

Picozzi said that he is hopeful that legislation will be approved this year that would allow an extension of two years for projects to be completed in order to be eligible for reimbursements for RIDE.

Using examples of price hikes for the proposed Pawtucket  soccer stadium and city offices at the Sawtooth building in Apponaug,  Picozzi said by having an extra two years to complete the project he hopes that the construction market will stabilize.

“They could start that project and it could skyrocket and I don’t know where we would be because it’s not stable right now and I’m concerned about that,” said Picozzi.

Picozzi said that he is also concerned about the project being completed in five years.

“They’re having trouble getting workers, they're having trouble getting materials,” said Picozzi.

Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi said that if the city passed the bond this year, then at a minimum the city will get the reimbursement rate that is currently set by RIDE. He said that things could get worse or could get better in terms of state reimbursements.

Ladouceur said that he thinks that the city should demand that RIDE gives them an extension before the project needs to be completed.

“Why do we even have a deadline at all,” said Ladouceur.

Gothberg said that he is concerned with delaying the project.

“I think it kills the project,” he said.

“If we push the project back two years what does that do to that estimate? It blows it out of the water,” said Gothberg. He also noted that a delay may mean having to submit new applications to RIDE, which would be an added expense as well.

Gothberg also said that 15 other communities are looking to get money from RIDE for construction and if Warwick was to delay their project it could mean the money not being there.

“If we delay it that money may be gone,” said Gothberg.


Increased debt

As part of the five-year forecast, which was asked through a resolution by the Council, Schaefer laid out what the debt services are projected to be with the issuance of the $350 million bond for the new schools and the $56 million bond for school renovations that was already approved by the voters.

In FY 24 the projected debt service is $2.9 million, in FY 25 $7.2 million, in FY 26 the projected debt service is $11.5 million and in FY 27 the projected debt service is $15.9 million. The projected debt service is based on getting a 50 percent reimbursement rate from RIDE.

Former city councilman and School Committee Chair Bob Cushman questioned Schaefer on the total amount of debt the city has on the books from bonds.

Schaefer said that not including the new schools and the $56 million bond for school renovations the debt from bonds totals $156 million.


Up to the voters

While not everyone said that they would be voting in favor of the new schools at this time a majority of the Council felt that it should be up to the voters.

Council President Steve McAllister, who wasn’t at the meeting, wrote in an email Tuesday “this project will have a significant impact on our taxes, therefore the majority of the City Council believed the taxpayers should decide if this is the right plan for the City.”

Ward 1 Councilman Bill Foley said that if the bond question isn’t on the ballot in November, then it would be delayed for at least two years, or the city would need to have a special election.

“If we don’t vote to move this forward it's dead for at least another election cycle,” said Foley.

Ward 4 Councilman Jim McElroy said that if the new schools aren’t built then the taxpayers will still have to pay for repairs to the schools.

“The schools need it. It's up to the voters to decide,” said McElroy.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis said that “both sides are right.”

Travis said that the city and the school district continue to spend money to make repairs and renovations to the schools.

“We keep pouring money down the drain,” said Travis.

With that said, Travis said she thinks that voters need more information and would be holding meetings in her ward to discuss the project.

Mike Penta, who is running as an independent in the Ward 4 City Council race said that he isn’t necessarily opposed to new schools but thinks more information is needed.

“I just think that the average taxpayer is being misinformed…they need to know before something like this goes forward,” said Penta.

Ladouceur said that he wants to know what the tax rate is going to be if the bond is passed.

“They need to know what the consequences are going to be,” said Ladouceur.

Schaefer pointed out that even if the bond is approved by the General Assembly and by the voters.

“There’s three cracks of the apple here,” said Schaefer.

Picozzi said that he is remaining neutral publicly on the bond question and said that he wants to get all the information out there and answer the questions of how much it's going to cost.

“I could see it going either way,” said Picozzi.

schools, voters

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  • ThatGuyInRI

    It's a big number, but keep in mind the status of our current school buildings which are ageing badly.

    Also keep in mind the impact a school system has on property values.

    A lot of people complain about people fleeing Warwick (Census data proves this false) and one way to attract people with families is to invest in the school system. Just a thought.

    Thursday, June 23 Report this