Design work set to begin on North Smithfield school construction project

Design work set to begin on North Smithfield school construction project

NORTH SMITHFIELD – A detailed application laying out five years and $12 million worth of school construction and improvement projects was submitted last week to the Rhode Island Department of Education, and school officials aim to put the first phase of design work out to bid this month.

Unanimous approval of the application by both the Town Council and the School Committee has started a process that administrators say they’re confident will gain approval from RIDE, and will lead to the decommissioning of Halliwell Elementary School by the summer of 2019. Previous attempts to begin improvements to school facilities with the help of a $4.3 million bond approved by voters in 2014 have failed to gain state approval.

“We’re very confident that if we submit this to the Department of Education, it will be fully approved and accepted,” Supt. Michael St. Jean told crowds at a joint meeting of the boards last week. “There’s money available. We’re at the ground floor.”

St. Jean noted that while it may be unconventional to start the design phase of the project before the application is approved, he wants to move forward with obtaining pricing so that construction can begin right after RIDE gives the official go-ahead in May. The first phase of the project will include construction of four new brick and mortar classrooms at North Smithfield Elementary School to accommodate Halliwell’s grade 4 students, and improvements to the boys locker rooms and science labs at the high school. Grade 5 students from Halliwell will be moved to the middle school.

St. Jean said the plan at the high school is to reduce the number of lockers to make room for individual shower stalls, noting that the “military-style” showers currently in use are considered extremely outdated.

Phase II of the school construction plan will address additional needs that were deemed high priority by RIDE officials. The agency commissioned Jacobs Engineering to assess all kindergarten through grade 12 schools throughout the state last year, assigning priority rankings of 1-5.

Virtually every issue at Halliwell, an aging elementary school with a California-style campus in need of millions of dollars in repair, was rated priority 1 by RIDE, and the district will earn points for closing the facility. The five-year plan will address priority 1 and 2 problems at NSES and NSHS, St. Jean said, such as ventilation and heating.

“We’re just dealing with the minimal for warm, safe and dry (schools and addressing) health and safety issues,” he said.

The work will begin with the help of the $4.3 million school bond, and RIDE is expected to reimburse the district at least 35 percent of the funding. That $1.6 million will be given back to officials on the municipal side of town government to finance the bond.

RIDE has implemented additional incentives for statewide projects geared toward science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) improvements and initiatives focused on career and technical education, as well as work that results in newer and fewer schools, addresses early childhood needs, or complies with the RIDE mission of creating warm safe and dry schools.

“Rates go up for individual projects,” St. Jean said. “We can stack the incentive.”

St. Jean said the $12 million construction estimate is “extraordinarily high,” and that once bids come in, the work can likely be completed for far less. The school department’s $2 million fund balance will also be used for financing, and a capital reserve/revolving fund for school facilities now containing $200,000 will hold any future reimbursements for reuse.

“You see the cycle: reimbursement and reinvestment,” he said. “What we’re recommending is any kind of capital investment from the town goes into this revolving fund.”

Town and school officials presented only a few questions on the plan, vetted over the past year with the help of both engineers from Symmes Maini & McKee Associates and RIDE officials. Committee member Art Bassett, who said he missed several recent school board meetings due to illness, noted that the application is 377 pages long.

“We saw this for the first time four days ago,” Bassett said. “We haven’t had discussion on a lot of details that are in it.”

Bassett noted that the document contains several changes from the district’s original application, rejected by RIDE in 2016, such as the elimination of a plan to put in additional parking at NSES.

St. Jean said that while work will include improvements to the elementary school entrance, parking changes are not required.

Committee member Paul Jones said that while the committee may have only recently received the completed application, details have been discussed at school board meetings over the past year.

“I don’t want to classify this as a situation where we haven’t had the chance to vet the material, because we have,” Jones said.

Resident Michael Clifford questioned why a high school with just 500 students would require six science labs.

“That’s a big chunk of money when you have a bunch of other needs coming at you down the pike,” Clifford said.

St. Jean responded that he expects many high school students to double and triple up on science classes once the district rolls out “pathways,” a new learning module allowing students to study courses specific to a college study or career choice.

“We have a great science department. It is a flagship program at the high school,” St. Jean said.

Jones noted that such improvements will help to keep students in the district, reducing the cost of transportation and tuition for North Smithfield kids who attend other schools.

“We’ve lost dozens of students to local charter schools. I’m really excited at the prospect of having six science labs,” said Jones. “That’s an investment that we should be excited to make.”

Comments

If we have lost dozens of students to Charter Schools,why don't we have savings in the school department?I cant imaging increasing the budget!Thanks Mike Clifford

Rockyhill, the school department still has to pay the charter school the amount of money that student would cost the sending community to educate.

Why can"t we close a science lab if we have fewer students and save money? More students are going to be opting to attend charter schools in the future. Mr. Clifford is our towns taxpayer watchdog and should be commended.