By Raissa Mosher
As we move forward with the Stage 2 facilities application (with the high school relocated to the Curtis Corner Road site), it’s important to review how the community arrived here. While many are busily constructing a revisionist history of the past nine months, a look back at the documented evidence reveals a different story. Last May, the School Committee (SC) asked the School Building Committee (SBC) to move forward with a study of the feasibility of building a high school at the Curtis Corner Middle School location. As documented below, members telegraphed their obvious skepticism prior to a 4-3 vote and the SBC returned their analysis that the idea was fully vetted and not feasible. Just six months later, at the request of the new superintendent who was not involved in any of the facilities planning that took place over the past 3 years, the same SC asked the same SBC to investigate a very similar question. The same SBC, working with the same architects (with the addition of an Owner’s Project Manager who works at the direction of the school committee), this time responded in the affirmative stating that the project is now feasible at the Curtis Corner site. Can the community trust this judgement when the only real difference was the School Committee’s new desire to move in this direction?
The current plan, called “feasible” by those with a direct financial interest, has been vetted in the past, and found to be far too expensive. It only appears affordable now because it is significantly scaled back from the original proposal and obstacles that were prior deal breakers are suddenly being dismissed or outright ignored. For instance, what were previously called wetlands are now referred to as “water features.” The ledge that has been talked about as a major problem with the site over and again might suddenly be “good ledge.”
The facility plan has gone through so many iterations, it’s easy to miss the most important feature: The cost of the project will remain the same while the scope will be flexible. The architects and Town Manager see this as a feature, but it is a bug. It means that all future mistakes in planning and cost overruns will result in less of our buildings being even partially renovated. Between the initial plan and the current iteration, planned renovations at the existing CCMS building have already been scaled back from $280 per sqft to $125 per sqft in order to stay within budget.
The history of this school committee’s handling of this process has been marked with mistakes and delays, already costing us $9M worth of repairs, according to the town manager’s Capital Improvement Plan document. The change of opinion by the Building Committee and the School Committee with respect to the Curtis Corner property is risky. If mistaken, the victims will not only be the town’s taxpayers, but also our children who will continue to learn in substandard spaces. We need to make sure we get this right for the sake of our children. For that reason, I hope community members will join me in continuing to question the glaring inconsistencies in this plan.
My hope is that we can have a completely honest conversation about what will really be happening with this new plan versus what is now being sold to an understandably excited contingency of parents with young children and a community who has been bounced around like ping pong balls for the past 18 months.
Let’s take a step back in time:
- Late2016/Early2017 SK Town Council (TC) asks the SC to do a facilities study in hopes of gaining efficiencies in the budget. Comments by then Town Manager Alfred and Councilmembers DaCruz and Gledhill made clear that the main goal was to find ways to avoid large yearly increases in the Property Tax Transfer (PTT).
- Spring 2017 TC/SC hold interviews and hire Robertson, Green, Beretta Architects (RGB) to manage the process.
- Sept 2017 Jacobs Report on the condition of all RI public school buildings is released. “A facility condition assessment evaluates the general health of physical facilities by identifying and prioritizing deficiencies that require correction for long term use of the campus.” The Jacob’s Report identifies Curtis Corner MS, South Road School and Wakefield Elementary as having the highest need with respect to their replacement values (FCI). It also identifies the Columbia Street location as having the lowest need.
- 2017 RI General Treasurer Seth Magaziner proposes a $250M construction bond to reimburse districts above the normal 35% by allowing them to earn bonuses for projects that meet certain requirements such as educational enhancements including career and tech centers, health and safety and “newer and fewer” schools. The bond passes in November 2018.
- January 2018 RGB presents SC with options after months of wide-spread community outreach and input.
- March 2018 SC votes to move forward with option B which addresses deficiencies in all buildings that will remain online in the district, proposes additions at Matunuck Elementary School and West Kingston Elementary School to add 21st century spaces and address deficiencies noted in the Jacob’s Report as well as additions to Broad Rock MS to allow for consolidation, at a total cost of $78 million before state aid reimbursement. Of particular note, the plan features an estimated $1.67M in yearly operational savings. The current plan allocates $62M at the CCMS high school, $17M at BRMS and $6M at the elementary schools. A project that once addressed all of the buildings in the district is significantly altered to build an addition on to the existing Curtis Corner Middle School and make it our high school. $40M in Jacob’s identified deficiencies remain unaddressed in the new plan.
- October 2018 Stage 1 application is submitted and approved. RIDE indicates the application is exemplary.
- November 2018 In spite of advice from RGB and RIDE to wait to change course until after Stage 2 application is submitted the newly elected school committee votes to reverse the decision of the previous school committee to go with Option A which kept all elementary schools open. Further adjustments to the plan removes approximately $10M from the elementary plans and adds $20M to proposed additions/renovations at the high school (on Columbia St).
- Jan/February 2019 After near unanimous votes by the SBC, SC and TC are taken without having seen even a draft of the stage 2 application, RGB submits its stage 2 application to RIDE.
- March 2019 Noting many missing sections and mistakes, RIDE returns the application with a response letter and suggests SK reapply in September 2019
- April 2019 After the rejection of the Stage 2 application the School Building Committee discusses the construction of a new high school vs. renovating Columbia Street.
- May 1, 2019 School Building Committee Meeting The SBC prepares a resolution to go to the School Committee with regard to building a new high school.
- May 14, 2019 School Committee Meeting In a 4-3 vote the school committee moved to authorize the School Building Committee to pursue an investigation regarding construction of a new high school building at the site currently occupied by Curtis Corner Middle School or South Road School. The dissenting votes were Ms. Canter, Ms. Markey and Ms. Collins. Their comments can be seen in the video clip below.
- May 15, 2019 School Building Committee Meeting Discussion ensues relative to the 4-3 vote and the rationale of those who voted against. Questions/Direction was provided to RGB to guide them in investigation of the new high school.
- May 22, 2019 School Building Committee Meeting RGB presents two preliminary designs and related costings for a new high school at the CCMS/South Road parcel. The committee discussed the designs and asked if they could be “flipped” in order to have the high school building closer to the Curtis Corner Road with fields and parking located behind. RGB indicated yes. They also discussed increasing cost, for example if ledge is found. A question was asked regarding the ability to obtain surveys and other information from years past for work done at CCMS. Yes, this can be researched and provided for review. It was shared that a retired athletic director recently advised that he recalls there being ledge in the area of where restrooms were intended to be constructed years ago, which required the restrooms to be relocated to their current location. Source: SBC Minutes
- May 24, 2019 School Building Committee Meeting discussion ensued relative to converting the existing CCMS to a high school and abandoning the current high school project (and building), and that a minimum the building would need a new gym, an auditorium, and additional classroom space, in addition to significant renovations and creation of 21st century learning space. This option does not seem viable simply due to cost. (RGB now maintains this was never previously asked) Source: SBC Minutes
- May 28, 2019 School Committee Meeting supporting documents include a letter from SBC chair Bryant DaCruz as well a Q&A regarding the findings of the SBC and RGB on building a new high school at CCMS. School Committee member Jacy Northup, who is the building committee representative on the school building committee, reports out the discussion from the SBC meeting. Her report out can be seen in the video clip below. The school committee voted on a motion to advise the SBC to move forward with the stage two application as planned. The motion was unanimously approved.
- Summer 2019 The School Building Committee continued to meet throughout the summer and early fall. Of note, the security and parking lot projects that were supposed to begin in the summer were delayed due to failure to submit proper permitting paperwork. These projects ~$2M. We now expect the same people to oversee an $80M bond? Also of note, during the summer meetings RGB indicated that the biggest concern from RIDE was the square footage of the current high school. RGB is looking to minimize the size of the proposed new construction areas. RGB also indicated that the option selected to renovate the Columbia Street location is the best option for the district to move forward with. Source: SBC minutes
- September 2019 Linda Savastano, who was appointed in July as assistant superintendent, is appointed as Superintendent of the South Kingstown School Department.
- October 23, 2019 School Building Committee Meeting Superintendent Savastano noted that the educational programming should be considered first and the design of the space secondary, not the reverse. Ms. Donnelly agreed and stated that is why RGB presented the information on this space this evening to begin this discussion. Prior to Ms. Savastano’s arrival to South Kingstown, there were dozens of hours of meetings with admin, teachers, parents and students at every grade level to discuss the educational programming and how the facilities could better support that. This information was not conveyed to Ms. Savastano at the time of her question that evening. Source: SBC Minutes
* The question around the supposed lack of focus on the educational programming with regard to facilities is the beginning of reopening the discussion of relocating the high school to the CCMS site.*
- October 28, 2019 School Committee Special Meeting to discuss school facilities planning. Committee members commented that the idea of a high school at CCMS was not fully vetted (see Ms. Northup’s report out to the School Committee on 5/22/19 which directly contradicts this statement), and that they weren’t sure that the current plan was being steered by the educational programming. The hundreds of community members who had input into the previous plan as well as the administrators, teachers, students and parents who participated in dozens of hours of work surrounding the educational programming with regard to facilities planning (as well as the hundreds of thousands of dollars already spent) seem to have been forgotten or completely ignored.The school committee moved to direct the school building committee to proceed with an investigation into the stage two application to show feasibility of the expansion of CCMS for grades 9-12 as well as the closure of the current high school facility as recommended by Superintendent Savastano. Source: School Committee meeting minutes
- November 6, 2019 School Building Committee Meeting Committee Chair Bryant DaCruz comes to agenda item #7 Discussion relative to direction provided by the school committee for an analysis of an alternate high school location at the Curtis Corner Middle School road site. Mr. Da Cruz says there was a vote taken by the school committee to investigate turning CCMS into the high school, and asks Ms. Savastano if that is correct. Ms. Savastano responds: using Curtis Corner as a high school with an addition. She further states that she doesn’t “want to mislead a community” and refers to the feeling that we don’t have this bond wrapped up and therefore should look into this. The audio of this exchange between the superintendent and Mr. Da Cruz can be heard below.
Later, in this same meeting, Mr. Zarnetzke refers to the fact that RGB looked at this previously and there is a problem with the ledge as well as wetlands. He states that you are really looking at a site that is about the same size as Columbia St.
And still further Dave DeQuattro (RGB) says we obviously know the condition of Curtis Corner is worse than the High School according to the Jacob’s report, if you have to do a phase 2 (meaning spending more money later on while kids are in the existing middle school with an addition), if you paint some spaces and do bigger improvements in a second phase. Audio is below. This is a key point. What are we really getting for $62M and how much more will it take to get the CCMS site on par with what was proposed at Columbia Street?
November 20, 2019 School Building Committee Meeting report out from OPM from Perigrine. States that RGB is investigating systems in the existing building as it will relate to any future redevelopment on existing building. Once again, reference is made to the CCMS existing structure needing further work down the road. A clip of that report out is below.
- December 4, 2019 School Building Committee Meeting town manager Rob Zartnestke says the Curtis Corner Middle School has the advantage of moving to a building that is already serviceable. Is it great, no, but it is serviceable. If you need to go there you can build an addition for $65M and slap paint on the existing structure. An OPM says that is not a good long-term solution and Mr. Zarnetske goes on to say long term we could make a plan for renovating the entire structure over time (again more $$ needed) Bryant Da Cruz says at the end of the day if you’re going to spend that kind of money, I don’t want to walk into Curtis Corner and feel like it is old. Others chime in that nobody would want that, and they’ll say where did our money go? Ms. Macinanti says that you wouldn’t want that at Columbia St. either. Of note, the Columbia Street project does not have any of the site issues that may eat into the renovation budget at the CCMS site. An audio clip of that exchange is below.
- December 10, 2019 Regular School Committee Business Meeting– report out from SBC meeting regarding evening tour of CCMS and SBC meeting scheduled for the evening of January 22, 2020. Of note, the tour of CCMS is scheduled before the feasibility study has been completed.
- January 8, 2020 School Building Committee Meeting RGB presents to SBC possible renderings for high school at CCMS. None of these have any cost associated with them at that time.
- January 14, 2020 School Committee Work Session RGB presentation on relocating the high school to the CCMS site.
- January 22, 2020 School Building Committee Meeting conversation continues around the project at the CCMS site. Once again, Town Manager Rob Zartnetske speaks about the nice feature of this project versus Columbia Street is that it is servicing kids today and is inhabited. (Columbia Street is also inhabited and servicing kids today, but that doesn’t come up.) He goes on further to say that gives us a $15M buffer and the flexibility we need. This $15M is the dollar figure set aside to renovate the existing CCMS building. Again, of note, the FCI on CCMS was the 3rd worst in the district. The Columbia Street location had the best FCI. These numbers are now being described as fairly meaningless- also a new concept. At the January 14 meeting just a week before Ms. Collins asked why RGB did not look at CCMS as a viable option for the high school and Mr. DeQuattro referenced the Jacob’s report FCI ratings. As this meeting progresses, Mr. DeQuattro gets questions about the ledge. His response is that they looked at the high school further back. Of note, the traffic study still indicates the need for a road to come down from the South Road School end of the property where the ledge was deemed a deal breaker. He also says maybe the ledge is “good ledge”. Ms. Reiner asks if the team has looked at any of the records to see what has been identified in the past. Mr. DeQuattro replies that was not their charge. Meeting Minutes from May 22, 2019 state that “ A question was asked regarding the ability to obtain surveys and other information from years past for work done at CCMS. Yes, this can be researched and provided for review.” These comments are in the audio clip below.
- January 28, 2020 School Committee Meeting The School Committee discusses moving forward with a directive for RGB to submit the Stage 2 application with the high school now being located at the Curtis Corner site. Members who previously had so many concerns about such an option that they voted last May to not have the SBC look at that site now weigh in with a completely different perspective in spite of very little if not any change to the former concerns they articulated. Member Collins, despite a completely contradictory statement on May 14, 2019 (just six months prior without any new data presented) says that the options originally presented did not give CCMS a real hard look to see if it was a viable place to add on to make it a high school. Member Northup’s comments speaks about the ledge perhaps not being a problem and that the area they looked at before was really ledgy (we still need to put a road through that same area) She goes on to say that what we need is a project that we can get our community excited about so we can pass a big bond in November. This is not the only time this reasoning is mentioned since this process started again in October. Ms. Markey, who voted against the decision to explore the site last May is absent from this meeting. Ms. Canter is excited to move forward and wonders at what point will we trust the architects overseeing the project?. Members Brousseau and Macinanti express ongoing concerns. A motion to move forward with facilities project Stage 2 high school location at Curtis Corner is approved 6-0. A video clip of those comments is below.
Winter/Spring 2020: Meetings to discuss and continue to flesh out the Stage 2 application will continue throughout the winter and spring. There is a goal to submit in the summer with a hard deadline of September 19, 2020
November 2020: The November General Election ballot will contain a question to be voted on by the community to approve a $90M bond. As of this writing that bond would put $85M into the school facilities plan and $5M into town facilities projects.
Excellent job Raissa!!!! Very informative. I plan to go to high school Saturday at 1, do you believe that will be informative?
Again, thank you
I hope so! I’ll be there.