Debate on grounds maintenance merger will continue at Monday's meeting

Debate on grounds maintenance merger will continue at Monday's meeting

SMITHFIELD - The idea of consolidating ground maintenance services between the town of Smithfield and its school department seems to be supported by both the Town Council and School Committee. Where the debate will arise is in figuring out the details of the proposed merger.

"Everyone is in favor of the concept," School Committee Chairman Sean Clough told The Valley Breeze & Observer. "The devil is in the details. That's the concern."

The merger will be one of a few topics discussed by council and committee members at their first joint meeting of the year, next Monday, June 29, at 7 p.m. in the Smithfield High School media center, 90 Pleasant View Ave.

"It's always good when the two bodies get together and work things (out)," Council President Bernard Hawkins told The Observer, adding that it's "only in the best interest of the town."

Both parties will also discuss the two bid awards that were received for projects relating to the $5.9 million school facilities bond that voters approved last November.

Finance Director Randy Rossi said that a bid may be awarded at the meeting.

"Most of the discussion will be on the school bond and the actual construction," Clough told The Observer, noting that both parties will work to decide what projects happen this summer and what will have to be held until next summer.

The majority of projects at the six school buildings and the school administration building consist of roof replacements, fire safety, HVAC and unit ventilation repairs, asbestos abatement, and plumbing upgrades, which will be paid for with money from the bond.

Town officials had expressed concern at the May 19 council meeting that not all of the projects related to the bond could be completed in one summer.

Hawkins said: "We're going to prioritize the spending of the bond issue (around) what work needs to be completed first. Hopefully it's a productive meeting."

The two groups were scheduled to meet in January, but the first of many snowstorms canceled the meeting, which was postponed indefinitely.

At that meeting, both parties were set to discuss the grounds maintenance merger which Clough told The Observer "needs final approval from both bodies."

"As far as I would be concerned, the town side would take over all grounds," Hawkins said, listing maintenance, cutting, lining, fertilizing, parking lots, roadways, and snow plowing as some of the duties that the town would have in keeping up the school grounds.

"I believe it'll be a win-win situation for everybody," Hawkins continued. "The school department will be able to save money to put toward education."

During the public comment section at the end of the council's June 2 meeting, an upset Clough addressed the council and asked why a bill was submitted to the General Assembly on May 29 that would "authorize the town of Smithfield to maintain grounds utilized by public schools," according to the bill.

He said that he thought the council and School Committee could work together "to reach a mutual agreement and understanding on how to merge those two departments."

Hawkins, who asked Rep. Thomas Winfield to re-introduce the bill that had been introduced last year, said that he did that to "save you even more money," and added that even though the bill is in "doesn't mean you have to do anything."

Not every council member was aware that the bill had been re-introduced. On June 4, the bill was held for further study.

Clough said that the bill, which puts the maintenance and improvement of some or all of the school grounds under the charge of the town manager, "doesn't even look like the agreement we are talking about."

"Now we have this hanging over our head," he said, adding that it provides "power to the town side" without input from the School Committee or superintendent.

Last summer, the town's director of public works and the school's director of buildings and grounds drafted a preliminary memo related to the possible consolidation of ground maintenance services.

Then, the School Committee had requested that comprehensive background checks would be carried out on all employees and contractors, regularly scheduled meetings between grounds crews and school department officials would take place, and a promise that money saved through the consolidation wouldn't be cut from the budget.

Per the memo, duties would include "general lawn care and grounds maintenance activities," explicitly excluding capital improvements and work on the sprinkler systems, exterior lighting, sidewalks, walking paths, parking lots, access roads, drainage and sewer systems, tennis and basketball courts, the high school track, dugouts, bleachers, goal posts, fencing and playgrounds, The Observer reported.

Clough noted that the town's Financial Review Commission, a volunteer advisory group currently chaired by Ken Sousa, was researching the costs of such a merger.

When he asked the council on June 2 if they received a report from the FRC, Hawkins said, "Not yet."

But Hawkins told The Observer on June 19 that the FRC is no longer looking into the topic.