Operational Savings Revisited, The Sequel

by Paula Bradley and Jason Ralph

On Wednesday, the Town Council and School Committee will hold a joint work session to discuss the Stage 2 School Facility Plan. The main purpose of this meeting is to address concerns raised by town representatives regarding future operational savings related to the facility plan. In preparation for this meeting, the following is a basic history of the facility plan to date, with an emphasis on the importance of operational savings.

About 4 years ago, in early 2017, the town council asked the district to conduct a facility analysis with the main purpose of finding operational savings to reduce the need for yearly property tax transfer increases. Over the next 18 months, the district organized and held several community visioning sessions and eventually settled on a plan to close Curtis Corner Middle School and Wakefield Elementary, expand Matunuck, West Kingston Elementary and Broad Rock Middle School and perform major renovations on the High School at Columbia St. This plan would have been financed primarily with conservatively estimated operational savings of $1.7M per year and the sale of the closed buildings.

The original plan was discarded by the School Committee elected in 2018. The resulting iteration, which reversed the planned closure of Wakefield Elementary, was submitted and then rejected by RIDE in early 2019. One of RIDE’s primary concerns was the size of the high school considering future enrollment projections, so in October of that same year, the newly hired Superintendent suggested a major change to the plan by abandoning the current High School location and establishing the high school at Curtis Corner, reabsorbing South Road School in the process. Since the 2018 election, district leadership has incorporated no community input, resulting in a deeply divided community and lack of trust in the people pushing this project forward.

Perhaps most importantly, district leaders have failed to clearly articulate operational savings . Without these ongoing savings, an $85M bond and $7M Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) will be financed by property tax increases over the next 20-25 years. The same operational savings concerns were raised in September 2020, and the Town Council delayed the Stage 2 submission in order to provide the school department time to more clearly explain exactly what the savings would total and from where they would come.

Fast forward to January 2021, and those concerns have been only vaguely addressed by a one page memo claiming $1.2M in yearly savings with no justification given. As backup, the district provided 72 pages of utility bills from 2010-2013, showing energy bills totaling approximately $800k per year for the entire district. In its updated stage 2 document (Appendix M), RGB estimates a total energy savings of only $61,000 before including the cost of proposed cooling systems at the high school, which will likely reduce those savings to under $40k. The district’s FAQ page is similarly thin on details ..

The School Building Committee voted 7-4 vote to recommend submission of the application. Of note, the four dissenting votes were cast by the Town Manager, Town Finance Director, Town Facilities Manager and Town Director of Administrative Services.

The following evening, with some members stating similar concerns, and others inexplicably claiming ignorance of the plan, the School Committee voted 3-2-2 (3 yes votes, 2 no votes and 2 abstentions) to pass the Stage 2 plan along to RIDE.

This project is historic in its cost and represents dramatic changes to our community, including the unaddressed future of the current high school building on Columbia St. Knowledgeable citizens have expressed concerns about the traffic, water drainage, site selection, potential cost overruns, and debt preventing future projects. But the most perplexing issue is why the district has failed to prioritize or detail operational savings generated by this plan.

Operational savings are critical to this project. As a result of needing to finance the bond debt payments, the town will have limited ability to increase the property tax transfer each year. The district will also be mandated to spend approximately $2M a year in building maintenance. As a result, the district will have to find savings to allow it to maintain a quality education for our children without sacrificing programs. As shown below from their FAQ page, the district acknowledges that further cuts to programs may be required as a result of this project. The lack of interest district leadership has shown (four additional months without any specific details) suggests they do not see the importance of leveling with the community.

When this project began, generating operational efficiencies and savings was at the forefront. It now seems to be an afterthought, mentioned only because RIDE requires its lip service. It is time to return to the original purpose of the facility analysis in 2017 (reduce operational expenses) and start talking about how this plan affects our district’s budgets going forward.

Please attend this Wednesday’s virtual work session and email the Town Council towncouncil@southkingstownri.com with your thoughts on the Stage 2 Application and this project. Town Council will vote on moving the application forward at their meeting on Monday Jan 25.

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