On May 4, residents of South Kingstown will be voting on an $85,000,000 school bond referendum.
That’s a pretty high amount for town residents to go on the hook for, mainly because the town’s student enrollment has been steadily declining but also because the cornerstone component of the proposed works, the high school, would not be newbuild but conversion of an existing school building. Two miles AWAY, by the way, from its current in-town location.
As there would be state funds involved, the project itself, its costs and its proposed funding sources have to be approved by the Rhode Island Department of Education. (Link here to the town’s facility application submitted to RIDE).
So the Ocean State Current reached out to RIDE with the questions below and received the indicated answers.
– The projects are disproportionately costly and would absorb district dollars away from other necessary projects and deficient buildings; an especially quizzical proposition in view of the district’s downward student enrollment trend. How does this very high cost conform with RIDE’s requirements for a “prudent municipal financing policy” and RIDE’s stated goal of improving “efficiencies in the design and construction of school facilities” and reinvesting “associated savings directly back into the classroom”?
South Kingstown’s Stage II Necessity of School Construction application is for a 5-year plan which was approved by the Town Council and School Board but is pending final approval from the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education. This plan represents the first part of a 20-year long-term educational facility master plan led by the district. The application attempts to align with state statue’s “newer and fewer” planning strategy as it proposes decreasing 200,000 square feet of school space in response to projected enrollments. Moreover, the application also supports investments in the elementary schools to address immediate health and safety needs. By targeting specific housing aid incentives approved in 2018, the district will be able to take advantage of up to 50% state reimbursement for this project.
– The application’s traffic study at Curtis Corner Road, the proposed new location of the high school, appears seriously flawed as it was conducted when the University of Rhode Island was not in session. A complete picture of this project’s impact on traffic, inclusive of current traffic volume, is especially important inasmuch as the proposal would add hundreds of drivers (high school students) to a neighborhood with limited access roads. How does RIDE plan to address this deficiency of the application?
A part of the Necessity of School Construction process, the School Building Authority reviews the district’s application per the School Construction Regulations. A preliminary review of the application has been conducted and a request for supplemental information has been made to assess compliance with the Necessity of School Construction Stage II checklist. Among requests is clarification on considerations to account for the addition of one grade, added staff, and student drivers. The SBA is seeking confirmation that the on-site traffic arrangement accounts for potential University of Rhode Island traffic and how South Kingstown will address any potential impact. The supplemental information is to be provided to RIDE by April 28th.
(With regard to the question about the traffic study, note that further clarification is needed as to whether URI was formally not in session when the study was conducted or de facto not in session; i.e., distance learning due to the pandemic with corresponding minimal traffic.)
A sincere thank you and cap-doff to Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green for requesting from her team a prompt turn-around on this information once the Ocean State Current’s query was directed to herself. She is clearly running a tight, no-nonsense, no-dodging ship.
When asked about a facility application, as a partner of each school district, the state’s Department of Education will frame their answer as positively as possible, as a good partner should. [Paraphrasing.]“Dropping student enrollment? Why, yes, the town’s application is in part to address this by reducing school space.” Ultimately, however, the proposed works, the justification for the proposed borrowing and, especially, the amount of the bond rest solely withthe municipality. A partner, however supportive, can only respond from within those parameters. They cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
South Kingstown’s application and bond proposal have very significant flaws, as outlined in the Ocean State Current’s questions of RIDE and raised by concerned South Kingstown residents. Add another one, inadvertently added by a supportive partner: it should cost a town’s taxpayers nothing close to this bond ask to consolidate away 200,000 square feet of school space.