Although plans have fluctuated since voters approved a $215 million school construction bond, Johnston should have two brand new schools by 2027.
On Tuesday night, during a special joint Johnston School Committee and School Building Committee meeting, the members of both boards present voted unanimously to send a $128,791,940 plan (Stage II) to build a new Johnston Senior High School to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE).
And construction crews hope to start clearing land for the new Johnston Elementary Center by the end of February (or early March at the latest).
“I went back to the drawing board and we crafted a plan that allows us to build a new elementary school and new high school for the same amount as the original bond,” Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. said before Tuesday night’s meeting. “It’s not a bad ‘Plan B.’ A new elementary school and a new high school should serve this community for the next few generations.”
As a town councilor, Polisena Jr. helped devise a plan to significantly renovate schools at every student age level in town. That was the plan voters overwhelmingly approved by ballot referendum in 2022.
“The original plan, pre-COVID, was to build a new early child center, a new elementary school, renovations to Ferri (Middle School) and renovations to Johnston High,” Polisena explained Tuesday. “With the sharp increase in cost of materials and labor lost-COVID, we cannot do that plan for the original amount of (around) $220 million. I’m not doing what other communities want to, which is going back out to bond again for more money, asking for more money from the taxpayers because the plan is specifically crafted for the annual debt obligation payment to be under the annual Amazon TSA (Tax Stabilization Agreement) payments.”
The town faced ballooning construction costs and interest rates, forcing several iterations of the original school building project. Meanwhile, planners faced strict RIDE deadlines for plan submissions.
“We are still going forward with my secondary plan of building a new elementary school and new high school,” Polisena wrote via email Tuesday. “They should start clearing the land for the elementary school either this month or next month.”
The School Committee also met last week to get the wheels turning on construction vehicles at the future site of Johnston’s new town-wide elementary school (most of the town’s current elementary schools will close and either be sold or retrofit for other uses).
“The Jan. 30 meeting was to approve preliminary contracts for work to begin at the new elementary school,” according to Johnston Schools Superintendent Bernard DiLullo Jr. “There was also a presentation on the final plan for the building exterior.”
The new elementary center will be built on a hill overlooking the current high school.
The newest plans for the high school were presented Tuesday night by Cathie Ellithorpe, principal of the SLAM Collaborative, who unveiled updated renderings.
“Yes, the current high school will be demolished and a new one will be built,” according to Polisena.
Ellithorpe explained that the new high school construction will start prior to demolition of the old high school. The new building will be situated between the current building and the athletic complex. Both buildings will share the current high school gymnasium (which will be renovated but not newly built, since according to planners, the old gym is bigger than RIDE would permit for new construction).
After the new high school is erected, the old high school will be razed, to make way for parking lots and access roads.
Ellithorpe said the new high school will include a newly constructed auditorium with seating for just under 400, a sloped floor and a raised deeper stage.
She told the committees that the new high school should open in the fall of 2027 and the new elementary school in the fall of 2026.
Financial incentives have slowed the start of construction of the town’s new elementary center.
“I took our time with the elementary school because with the current rate environment we are making a substantial amount of interest on the $85 million we borrowed for it,” Polisena explained. “To date we’ve made about $5 million, which we will turn around and use to make the debt payments on the bond itself. So we are using interest made on the debt to pay for the annual debt payment itself.”
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