Promising carpools and off-site parking, BV Prep school wins approval
Promising carpools and off-site parking, BV Prep school wins approval
CUMBERLAND - After layering on a series of parking and site restrictions that included mandated carpooling for parents, four of the seven Town Council members last Wednesday, Sept. 18, approved the rezoning of Broad Street's Currier Park as a commercial space for a new charter school.
The votes of Councilors James Higgins, Jeffrey Kearns, Craig Dwyer and Bill Murray overrode the objections of the Valley Falls' representative to the council, Manuel DaCosta, who said his constituents simply didn't want to give up the park for a second Blackstone Valley Prep charter school in their end of town.
He found support only with at-large councilor Art Lambi, who called the school a "round peg in a square hole." Lambi suggested that the list of restrictions attached to the council's approval was evidence that the school didn't belong in the high-traffic area across from Town Hall.
Abstaining because he has a business relationship with one attorney for the school, Scott Partington, was Councilor Scott Schmitt.
Councilors, gathered Wednesday for this highly anticipated hearing, listened to four hours of testimony before voting shortly before 11:30 p.m., first to rezone the 1.3-acre Currier Park for commercial use and then to sell it to Civic Builders of New York for $249,000.
Plans call for a $15 million investment on Broad Street, an area of town that Mayor Daniel McKee, the school system's founder, is starting to call an "education corridor."
The rendering shows a three-story, 40,000-square-foot elementary school that will house 400 students in kindergarten to grade 4. The school building will sit on the site of the old Currier-Chace homestead and front on both Broad and Chase streets, while abutting the houses of Titus Street on the north side, and to the south on Lusitana Avenue, it will abut a parking lot used by Town Hall visitors as well as two houses. Ten-foot buffers of fencing and vegetation between the houses and school are promised.
Equal numbers of students come from Pawtucket, Central Falls, Lincoln and Cumberland and are chosen by lottery. The sending districts are responsible for paying their students' tuition.
Approximately 1,000 students are currently enrolled in a BV Prep elementary or middle school. The school system has state permission to eventually grow to 2,400 students, kindergarten to grade 12.
This is Blackstone Valley Prep's second elementary school and will replace rental space at Our Lady of Fatima Church off High Street.
The first elementary school is in the former school first built by St. Patrick's Church and owned by the charter school that's under the Mayoral Academies of Rhode Island banner.
The new site is especially attractive to BV Prep because it's centrally located and environmentally clean, said the school's Executive Director Jeremy Chiappetta.
He told the councilors, "I really do believe the benefits are clear. We really believe that by being a good neighbor we can revitalize this community."
He mentioned the first school, at St. Patrick's where "we took an unused space, it was an eyesore, and we invested private money and made it a nice thing."
Chiappetta added that the "educational benefits are clear. I think that goes without saying. Cumberland is talking about education in a way that they hadn't been talking about five years ago. And the results are there," he said about district-wide improvements in test scores.
"I don't think it's a coincidence," said Chiappetta. "We are part of that conversation. We want to be a partner, we want to do this. We want to make the valley better."
Chiappetta said later he hopes to see the new school opened by September of next year.
Civic Builders is a nonprofit firm dedicated to building charter schools. Civic Builders will lease the building to the school for at least the first seven years, after which BV Prep will have the option of purchasing it or continuing to lease, according to David Umansky, chief executive officer for Civic Builders.
Wednesday night, a polite assembly of Blackstone Valley Prep staff, students and parents - many sporting BVP insignia on their shirts - filled the council chamber, taking seats among a handful of residents there to share worries about lost parking spaces and increased traffic.
The presentation was methodical as Chiappetta walked council members through solutions to the half-dozen or so objections to the school that have surfaced in the past three months.
The newest issue on that list was unexpected: coal mines.
State Rep. Jim McLaughlin reminded the council of cave-ins in the immediate area and said he had contacted the federal Department of the Interior and was expecting maps of the tunnels that he will distribute.
An engineer with Pare Engineering of Lincoln told councilors that testing had turned up evidence of ledge but no voids where mine shafts might be located.
President Higgins prodded mostly about traffic circulation, asking which streets the buses and parents would be using, where the buses would park, and even got the school to give up five of its schoolyard spaces to the general public when he learned the school's new driveway will take away five spaces directly opposite Town Hall.
As the night went on, BV Prep's success seemed assured as council questions and audience objections were few.
In the end, while members of the council typically yield to the wishes of a district council member, DaCosta found himself abandoned by all but Lambi.
DaCosta called the proposal "an emotional and sensitive issue," and said his vote against represented "the will of the people who put me in this seat. The school does not fit at Currier Park."
He also apologized to constituents for agreeing to put the park up for sale earlier this year.
The most outspoken abutter was Donald Soares of Titus Street who said he's lived in his house for 75 years.
Soares expressed skepticism about Chiappetta's promise that staff members would continue parking at Cadillac Mill complex.
"I don't care what he said. Human nature is this: They'll park there when school first opens. After school opens, they'll park on Titus Street."
Councilor Schmitt later told The Breeze that had he been voting he would have opposed the project, although his nay vote wouldn't have changed the outcome.
He said in an email, "While the dollars do indeed follow the students, the savings do not. And while another argument can be made that the results would be the same if the school were located in another community, the anecdotal evidence from Lincoln suggests otherwise."
Among the promises outlined by Chiappetta and others:
* Start times for both charter schools will be staggered and buses will be queued off Broad Street at a parking area leased at the Cadillac Mill complex on Macondray Street.
* Parents, who will be called upon to carpool, will be directed to use the wider streets running behind the school, such as taking Macondray Street to the very wide Elm or Maple streets.
* BV Prep will create a playground open to the neighborhood whenever school is not in session, including a basketball court for the older youth.
* Parking areas will be offered to businesses and organizations for after-school use.
* Financial and technical expertise was offered Cumberland by Civic Builders toward creating a replacement park perhaps at the end of Wildwood, off Mendon, where a flooded houselot was just purchased by the town using federal funds, and perhaps on land adjacent to the B.F. Norton School playground on Broad Street.
Civic Builders is paying $249,000 for the park in a sale approved Wednesday night and also opposed by Lambi and DaCosta.
Seemingly eliminated Wednesday as an issue is the school's proximity to a restaurant with a liquor license. While liquor establishments can't build near schools without an exception, schools can build near drinking establishments, said Solicitor Thomas Hefner.
Bolstering town officials' contention that the school will stimulate business on Broad Street was parent Chris Horbath, a North Cumberland resident who said that as a result of his child going to school on Broad Street, he's shopping at the nearby liquor store, Valley Falls florist shop and Roger's ACE Hardware store.
He said it's not hard to imagine a "resurgence" for Valley Falls. "I really feel that with the school being here that it will bring in families, not just teachers, to the area," he said.
The night's presentation included an angry, loud outburst from the usually reserved Mayor McKee taking strong issue with the school's detractors, especially a column by Valley Breeze Publisher Tom Ward in last week's Breeze. The column was posted online Sept. 18.
"Our public schools, post mayoral academy, are significantly stronger, are significantly stronger," McKee said.
McKee referenced "great leaders" at the public schools and "parents who are more engaged than we've been - ever. They are engaged in a way that has never happened before."
McKee said great schools, both district and mayoral academy, "are transforming our community right now."
He said Cumberland schools are the third fastest improving schools in Rhode Island.
Referencing the column in last week's paper, McKee went on, "How dare Tom Ward suggest parents are not engaged." McKee called the column "grabbing at straws" to find "one more excuse" to oppose the new school.
Regarding comments in a letter by resident historian and environmentalist Frank Geary, McKee said, he would "work until my last day in office as mayor."
(Geary had stood earlier in the hearing to apologize for some of his remarks.)
And McKee said of the school project, "I would not propose something in town I did not firmly believe was in the best interest of every kid, regardless of what seat they are sitting in."
About ongoing debate, some of it in Breeze letters to the editor, he said, "What's been going on in this community for the past few weeks is disgusting."
(See further commentary from McKee on page 22.)