Summer upgrades complete; Cumberland school officials hope for more with bond referendum

Summer upgrades complete; Cumberland school officials hope for more with bond referendum

School Supt. Bob Mitchell shows off the redone floors in the cafeteria of Cumberland Hill School during an Aug. 31 tour of school facilities. (Breeze photos by Ethan Shorey)

CUMBERLAND – Supt. Bob Mitchell says town schools saw some $1.8 million of improvements over the summer, upgrades staff members and students were thrilled to see upon returning for the 2018-2019 year.

Mitchell and other school officials say Cumberland residents can ensure progress continues into the future if they approve an $83 million school bond referendum in November.

School officials put together their $83 million package for Cumberland based on some of the items they need to do and want to do in the future, said Mitchell, with the first focus on safety and security in schools, and the secondary focus on “the really interesting work” of what they can do to “prepare our students for the 21st century.”

Today’s students will be applying for jobs “that haven’t even been created yet,” said Mitchell, but the way classrooms are configured for teaching, with a teacher standing in front of rows of students, “hasn’t changed a lot in a long time.”

Cumberland school officials generally complete a number of improvements during the summer, but this summer saw far more upgrades than normal, said Mitchell. The upgrades mostly revolved around health and safety and energy efficiency.

All floors in all schools have now been abated for asbestos, with new white tile added at several schools this summer.

“I feel good about the fact that asbestos flooring has been removed,” said Mitchell.

In some schools, gym floors were redone, exterior sidewalks were replaced, and new moisture barriers were added. New phones were added in every district classroom for an added layer of safety. Extensive painting was also completed over the summer.

The longer wish list of items targeted with the $83 million school bond include addressing such issues as the maxed-out enrollment at Ashton Elementary School, including making a decision on whether to put an addition on the school. Ashton is currently a two-track school with four grades, meaning there are two classes in those grades, but school leaders could decide to add a track and grade there, he said.

At Community Elementary School, the cafeteria is so small that there are currently six lunch periods.

“We have a responsibility, it seems to me, to plan to enlarge that cafeteria,” Mitchell said, adding that Garvin School also has a small cafeteria.

To see up to $83 million in upgrades happen in Cumberland schools, local voters need to approve the $83 million bond referendum and voters statewide must approve Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposal for a $250 million investment in schools.

Cumberland school officials haven’t publicized their full “tentative” wish list on improvements, particularly centered on health and safety upgrades, but say there would be extensive sessions after a November vote to hammer out the details and prioritize upgrades, if the money is approved. With a diverse group of stakeholders, “together we’ve got to decide how we want to use the money” to change or add onto facilities, said Mitchell. There needs to be a broader discussion on how the community wants its educational facilities to look and function into the future, he emphasized.

The goal leading up to the November vote is to help taxpayers understand exactly what school leaders are trying to do, and that the governor’s plan provides a “once-in-a-lifetime” reimbursement opportunity, said Mitchell.

With various incentives factored in, Cumberland could be reimbursed up to 65 percent of the $83 million, or a local obligation of about $29 million, he said.

The Valley Breeze reported in June that the Cumberland Town Council unanimously voted to approve the $83 million school bond referendum to go before voters. Several council members agreed that this opportunity, allowing a lot of work to be done for a lot less money than it actually costs on the local level, should not be wasted.

Sen. Ryan Pearson, who had met with town and school officials weeks before the June vote to lay out the urgency of coming up with a potential spending plan to get to the front of the line on its projects, said this week that there will be lengthy school board and council reviews of specific projects, including costs and timing, if Cumberland voters approve the $83 million referendum in November.

There would not be a second vote by residents on specific projects.

Pearson previously called this a unique opportunity, with new state incentives, to both save local taxpayers money and improve schools.

The Town Council originally passed an amendment by Councilor Scott Schmitt stating that the bond vote would be nixed if the town’s reimbursement from the state ends up being lower than 50 percent. The town’s current reimbursement is 40 percent.

Cumberland schools Supt. Bob Mitchell heads up the newly redone walkway to Cumberland Hill Elementary School during a tour of schools on Aug. 31. School officials invested nearly $2 million into facility upgrades over the summer and are advocating for passage of an $83 million school bond referendum in November.