School Committee weighs firms for new elementary school

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The Johnston School Committee heard presentations from three firms during last Thursday’s meeting as a different company is sought to oversee the construction and development of a new elementary school.

After cutting ties with Robinson Green Beretta a few months ago, the district is on a constricted timeline to push forward through Phase 2 of the development process. Johnston stands to lose valuable reimbursement funds from the Rhode Island Department of Education if plans are not turned in by September.

During a three-hour meeting on March 25, the board heard proposals from Fielding International, Finegold Alexander and SLAM on what each would bring to the table in terms of design and timelines.

Both Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo and School Committee Chair Bob LaFazia told the Sun Rise this week that they expect a decision by next Tuesday’s budget workshop.

“The Fielding group was very innovative and I thought their building designs were very 21st century,” DiLullo said. “We definitely liked their ideas and they definitely did some work in terms of what our goals are. The second, Finegold Alexander, they were a much more traditional architect, definitely more traditional classroom spaces. And then SLAM was another architect that we thought was more toward our thinking in terms of what our schools could look like, with common learning spaces, smaller spacing for group work and the ability to change classroom layout.”

Members of the School Committee were reticent to reveal their preferences when reached for comment by the Sun Rise this week. LaFazia said he plans to reach out to representatives individually to gauge which firm they liked the most.

“I think [Fielding] and [SLAM] were probably the best out of the bunch, but everybody has a different point of view and what we’re going to do is discuss a little more during the course of the week and go over it, one by one, and make our decision probably by the end of the week so we can vote [Tuesday],” LaFazia said, noting that open meeting rules state gathering with a majority of the group outside of formal proceedings is forbidden.

Vice Chair Joseph Rotella said Wednesday that he was keeping his cards close to his vest in terms of which presentation caught his eye, but there was one he had in mind.
“I thought they were excellent,” Rotella said. “I thought we saw three great companies. … It’s a great opportunity for us, a once-in-a-lifetime situation for us. I’m really excited about what could be.”

District 3 representative David Santilli Sr. said the “proposals were good,” and he looked forward to making the final decision next week.

District 5’s Susan Mansolillo offered positive remarks on all three presentations, saying it was “very good to hear from three companies who care so deeply about student education and the importance of it moving them into the future.”

“For me that was very important, is that educational piece being able to take our students forward, not just plan for today or next year, but this building and these upgrades have to be able to stand the test of time. I feel as though they gave us that information, they did have limited time.”

She said she hasn’t made her final choice yet, but added she feels more comfortable with firms that have worked in a Rhode Island setting before. She said SLAM’s representatives were “very energetic,” while Finegold Alexander “brought a sense of [being] very organized and pulled together.” Fielding, Mansolillo said, “showed a lot of their educational components.”

“They all gave us a lot to think about,” Mansolillo said. “We don’t want to wait too long because of the timeframe. I am looking closely, although the second company that presented does a great job [showing] why they’ve been very successful and they could come in if we chose them … I was very impressed with their presentation, then when I realized they hadn’t done a project in Rhode Island, it just kind of threw me a little. I haven’t made a decision and I want to review the education components. That’s the most important piece.”

A few members of the Johnston Town Council were in attendance for last Thursday’s meeting, including Vice President Joseph Polisena Jr., District 1 Councilwoman Linda Folcarelli and District 5 Councilman Robert Civetti.

Polisena said each group provided “their own unique strengths,” saying any of the potential options would be suitable for the project.

“Fielding presented a more open blueprint, Finegold looked like they presented more traditional but modern, and it seems like SLAM presented a good mix of both,” Polisena said. “I don’t think there’s a wrong answer.”

Folcarelli said she preferred two of the presentations, but declined to say which ones. She said she lives next to century-old Thornton Elementary School and, despite the district’s best efforts to maintain existing structures, it’s time for an upgrade.

“I liked their energy, the two I have in mind,” she said. “I liked their presentation about the future of the schools they’ll be building, the visions for the future and the children. I like their ideas about what they’ll do for the outdoor parts for the children. I thought it was very good, very informative, I’m glad I was a part of it.”

Civetti said each of the groups were qualified, but he believed SLAM is “the best candidate at this point” for its experience working locally.

“I’ve had some experience seeing some of their work in other communities and the timeframes they were able to meet,” he said. “I think they were the only firm that mentioned budgets, so they seemed very conscientious about budgets and coming in under budget.”

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