Smithfield School Committee looks to create capital improvement fund

Smithfield School Committee looks to create capital improvement fund

SMITHFIELD – The Smithfield School Committee is looking to create a capital improvement fund for maintaining and improving school buildings, a move Supt. Judy Paolucci said would lessen the need to borrow bond funds in the future.

During a School Committee meeting on Monday, April 26, Paolucci gave an example of a three-part investment plan that would allow the department to consistently grow a capital improvement fund while spending money on capital projects. The town, she said, would need to be on board for the plan to work.

Paolucci said the district could first invest a portion, 3.5 percent for example, of the fund balance from the operating budget.

The district would then ask for an amount, estimated to be $120,000, from the town to be added to the budget. The amount would increase annually.

Finally, she said, the department would use their state housing aid reimbursement to put back into the fund. Rhode Island reimburses up to 35 percent of money spent on school capital improvements, but those projects need to be first presented to the state in a capital improvement plan.

Currently, Paolucci said there are about $7 million worth of projects needed at the high school, and $4 million at the middle school. She said the elementary schools are mostly up-to-date thanks to the ongoing $45 million bond project.

Paolucci said many of the current projects are being completed by grants with matching components, and are not subject to housing aid reimbursement from the state.

Paolucci said the district did not spend much on capital improvements this year, and will not be receiving much housing aid reimbursements. Further, reimbursements generally go to the town, she said. Paolucci said she does not think it’s right that reimbursements on district-funded projects go back to the town.

“When it comes from our fund balance, that doesn’t make sense for it to go to the town. It’s another conversation to have eventually,” she added.

Most recently, the district requested nearly $240,000 for improvements at the high school auditorium, including new lights and sound, and an additional $8,000 for a guardrail at Gallagher Middle School. The town, however, only submitted a $120,000 budget line for school capital improvements for the auditorium renovations.

“If we only invest $120,000 a year in our buildings, the middle school and high school will be in dire need very, very fast,” she said.

School Committee Chairwoman Virginia Harnois said the district is already struggling to maintain buildings with only $120,000 in capital improvement funds from the town, and she believes a larger share should be invested in schools considering the number of buildings and acreage. Historically, the district received $280,000 annually from the town, she said, but has not in recent years due to the large bond project.

Paolucci said reducing the need to borrow bonds for smaller projects could lead to the district taking care of buildings, not just renovating or replacing them. She continued that consistent improvements will mean better health and safety for students and staff, have improved effects on learning, increase returns from housing aid, eliminate the competition between capital and operation funds and help meet new Rhode Island regulations for funding.

Committee member Richard Iannitelli agreed with Paolucci, and said creating a fund has been discussed numerous times over the years without any action by the Town Council.

“They shake their heads in agreement and nothing ever gets done,” Iannitelli said.

Iannitelli’s sentiments were backed by other committee members, with Benjamin Caisse requesting the committee start the fund, add to it and push for the town to join in at a later date.

Iannitelli warned that while the district can show its commitment by starting and investing in the fund, relying on a fund balance is the riskiest of all the investment options.

“It’s by definition a fund balance, a surplus, you don’t know if we’ll have it,” Iannitelli said.

The School Committee did not take a formal vote on the capital improvement fund.

Comments

I didn't see anything about new athletic fields at the high school??