Planning for $350M in school bonds

Posted 3/9/22


After receiving the blessing from the Warwick City Council last month to move forward with an application with the Rhode Island Department of Education in hopes of building two new …

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Planning for $350M in school bonds



After receiving the blessing from the Warwick City Council last month to move forward with an application with the Rhode Island Department of Education in hopes of building two new high schools for $350 million, the School Committee learned of plans Tuesday to promote the bond and meet the stringent timeline to get the issue on the November ballot.

“The most telling comment from our three hours in front of the Council was from Councilman (Ed) Ladouceur, who said ‘this is too big of a decision to be made by the nine council members, and that no matter what anyone thought on the subject it should ultimately move to and decided by the voters of Warwick,” said Steve Gothberg, Director of Capital Projects and Construction for the School Department gave an update to the Committee.

“I hope he sticks with that,” said Gothberg.

Gothberg said that the District submitted six binders to RIDE which included 1,600 pages of data and information along with drawings. He said that the submission is currently being reviewed by RIDE.

It is expected that RIDE will have supplemental requests, which is typical Gothberg said.

Gothberg said that the District’s plan is expected to go in front  of the RIDE School Building Authority around May 15.

If the projects are approved by RIDE the District would then need to go back to the Council in order to get a resolution asking the General Assembly to allow the Council to put the bond measure on the ballot in November.

Committee member Karen Bachus asked the question “what do we do if this doesn’t pass.”

“There is no plan B,” said Gothberg.

Gothberg pointed out during the presentation to the Council that last July the Rhode Island Department of Education denied that plan, noting that it would disrupt the schools for four years, and the delta between the costs of building new and making major renovation would be minimum. Gothberg said that while they didn’t get too far in the process before RIDE shut them down, preliminary estimates were around $302 million for the major renovations.

“It won’t work and we won’t get a reimbursement out of it, “said Gothberg.

Sending it to the voters

Vice Chair and Chair of the Building Committee David Testa said he thinks the voters need to be able to decide on whether or not they support the projects.

“All we can ask for as a District is for it to get in front of the voters to decide,” said Testa.

Testa noted that the District needed to be conscious of the compressed timeline.

He noted that if the District is given approval by RIDE  in May the District will have a short time frame between the time the School Committee can present to the Council in hopes of receiving a resolution to ask the General Assembly for permission to put the question on the ballot in November and the time the General Assembly adjourns for the summer.

Testa noted that the session ends on the last day of June.

Chairwoman Judy Cobden, who graduated from Pilgrim in 1986 noted that it needed  to be done while she was in high school and hopes that the District won’t lose out on the opportunity to bring it to a vote due to procedural issues.

“A lot of work has gone into this and I think it should come down to the taxpayers,” said Cobden.

Price tag

Testa said that the District has been transparent from the beginning about the project.

“We will make our case. It’s an expensive project, there’s no way of getting around that,” said Testa.

City Finance Director Peder Schaefer prepared a memo ahead of the February Council meeting in order for the Council and public to get an understanding of what the projects may cost.

In his report Schaefer said that there are a “number of variables” when it comes to the debt services costs, including final construction cost estimates, interest rate risk, and level of state reimbursement.

“There may also be opportunity for “Pay as you Go” contributions by the state,” the report reads. “This would reduce the amount borrowed (by as much as $18.5 million on a $350 million approved project) as well as future reimbursements but does not change the overall picture.”

Schaefer in the report laid out the best and worst case scenarios as of right now.

The best case would be a cost of $350 million with all spending reimbursable, and 50 percent reimbursement by the state.

“This is an aggressive estimate since existing state law caps Warwick’s reimbursements at 47.5%, although the Governor’s budget proposal may increase this to 52.5%,” said Schaefer. “Also, some costs will not be reimbursable. Under this best case scenario, annual net debt service to the city over 20 years would be (after state reimbursement or pay as you go funding) $13.1 million per year.”

The worst case? Schaefer said the City could be looking at a cost of  $400 million with 35% reimbursement by the state.

“This would result in annual net debt service to the city over 20 years (after state reimbursement or pay as you go funding) of $19.5 million per year,” said Schaefer.

In the report, Schaefer outlined what it would mean for the taxpayers.

He said that the current annual property tax levy of the city is $235 million. It means that a $13.1 million annual net debt service price tag would equal around 5.5% of the existing tax levy, and a $19.5 million price tag would equal  8.3%.

“While tax rates will change after the next revaluation, at the current rates this would equate to a tax rate increase from $1.03 per thousand to $1.55 per thousand in the residential rate,” said Schaefer. “On a home currently assessed at $300,000, this would be a tax increase of from $330 to $490 a year. This assumes that there would be no operating cost savings from the new high schools or other economies by the City. It also does not include the debt service for on-going projects.”


Public outreach

The School District knows that in order for the bond to be approved they are going to need a majority of voters to vote in favor of the measure.

During the meeting Gothberg said that the bond planning team which consists of several members of the administration recently looked at 20 slogan ideas for if the bond goes to the ballot.  The one decided on was “our future begins here.”

Gothberg said that they also discussed how the District should message the project. He said that it was decided that the District should provide information on the new website being developed, in addition to posting on social media. Another idea discussed was to create a slideshow of the existing conditions and of what it could look like if they move forward.

In person conversations was also a concept discussed, including forums.

“We really believe we should move forward with forums and meetings with the community,” said Gothberg.

Gothberg said if the bond measure goes to the ballot in November and is approved by the voters the District would then go to the Council in December to seek authorization to spend the bond funds. The design would then begin in January, he said.

schools, bonds


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