Voters will decide Halliwell Elementary School's fate

Voters will decide Halliwell Elementary School's fate

NORTH SMITHFIELD - If voters approve the $4.3 million education bond on the ballot this November, Halliwell Elementary School will be demolished and by the 2015 school year, the students who would normally attend the facility will be sent to the middle school and North Smithfield Elementary School.

The Town Council took a final vote to amend plans for how to spend the bond Monday night and the scope of the work would include completely razing the facility, solving a problem that has plagued the town for years.

The 11 wooden buildings that currently serve the district's 3rd through 5th-grade students were built in a California-style campus in 1957 at a cost of around $550,000. With a 330 student capacity, the campus sits on 38 acres of land and has had no renovations other than necessary repairs in its 60-plus years. The buildings that compose Halliwell are connected by open sidewalks covered with steel canopies.

State officials have estimated that it could cost up to $12 million to fully repair the school and short-term fixes have been a drain on district resources. Problems at the facility over the past several years have included pest invasions, septic backups and roof leaks.

"I was up there before this meeting taking pictures and I could not believe the condition of those buildings," said Town Council President John Flaherty on Monday. "We've got to move on this."

The school bond is one of three in a package dubbed "Invest in NS" that will appear before voters in November. In separate ballot questions, voters will also decide if the town should spend $2.5 million for repair and rehabilitation of the town's roadways, and $5.2 million on repair of municipal buildings.

Flaherty has led a team of representatives from various town departments over the past year and a half in working on the proposal, but until this week, it was unclear exactly how the proposed school bond funding would be used.

Officials agreed last year that NSES would need to be expanded if the bond was approved to accommodate the influx of new students from Halliwell. Renovations would include the expansion of the cafeteria and the addition of permanent classrooms. But according to the original proposal approved by the School Committee, two of the buildings at Halliwell would have been saved for storage of school supplies.

To save money, officials also briefly considered nixing demolition and putting a fence around the vacant school.

Flaherty said the idea was put forth by Supt. Stephen Lindberg, but this week the school head said that he was never committed to the proposal.

"They were just my ideas," Lindberg said. "They didn't represent the School Committee."

The committee has not yet voted on whether or not to support the education bond, and the issue will likely be taken up at its next meeting in September.

If approved, the bond money will also be used to renovate science labs at the high school and to address the problem excessively hot classrooms at the middle school during warm months.

Of the $4.3 million in planned spending on school facilities, $1.7 million is believed to be eligible for reimbursement from the Rhode Island Department of Education. Building and repairs that address health and safety issues are considered reimbursable by the state education board, although the town must still gain final approval.

The amendments passed by the Town Council on Monday also eliminate $272,624 of the $400,000 allocated to improve air conditioning at the middle school.

"Everything else being equal, I think it would be more important to raze those buildings at Halliwell than to fully air condition the middle school," said Flaherty.

It is still unclear what will be done with the 38-acre property once the buildings are razed.