PAWTUCKET – Could the site of the former McCoy Stadium be home to a future unified high school campus in Pawtucket?
It’s a question that a subcommittee is now researching as they investigate whether to combine Shea High School, Tolman High School, and the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts into one high school campus instead of moving forward on renovations at Shea and Tolman.
If it goes through, the plan is to have an all-inclusive high school complex housing the three high schools and including a new career and technical education component, according to officials.
The ad-hoc subcommittee studying the high school academic complex met last Thursday, Sept. 9, after a meeting scheduled for Sept. 2 was canceled after Chairman Jay Charbonneau said members didn’t receive information they’d requested from Mayor Donald Grebien’s administration in time.
At a previous subcommittee meeting, Supt. Cheryl McWilliams said she’d like the group to have a recommendation of whether or not to pursue the unified school idea within three months because the Rhode Island Department of Education is expecting a formal decision on whether to move forward with renovations at the two high schools or build a combined school.
“We’re very excited to see we’ve got some forward progress,” Wilder Arboleda, deputy director of administration for the city of Pawtucket, told The Breeze after last week’s meeting. “The subcommittee has a lot of voices at the table.”
As the subcommittee moves forward in their research, Charbonneau, a Pawtucket School Committee member, said they are awaiting more information about McCoy’s possible use, as well as figuring out the best way to hear feedback from the community. “I think the leadership on the School Committee is committed to seeing this process through,” he said. “Quite honestly I think everybody is open to it.”
“We left the meeting … feeling good that we had requested some additional information,” he added. They are waiting to hear back from construction experts and their project management team at Colliers. “We’ll work collaboratively with the mayor’s office and City Council to figure out the best way to get the community involved.”
Charbonneau said that it was exciting to hear about the city’s capacity to afford the project at the last meeting. According to a letter from the city’s bond counsel answering a question posed by the subcommittee, the city has sufficient debt capacity to issue a school bond in the amount of $300 million if need be.
The letter “essentially says we can handle this,” Arboleda said, adding that there are other opportunities where the city could potentially save more money.
“We have a starting point,” Charbonneau said. “We know the city can afford it.”
The next question becomes “is McCoy the right site now?” he said.
A geotechnical study that was discussed at the meeting “indicates that that site needs far more testing to really determine a suitable end use.”
The study essentially says the city can build on the stadium property as long as there’s remediation that takes place, Arboleda said. Future studies will have to determine what that remediation looks like, he said.
When asked if there are other potential locations being considered besides McCoy, Charbonneau said he’s not sure if the city has another parcel of land big enough to house the proposed complex.
If a new unified school were to open tomorrow, he said it would have to house just north of 2,000 students.
Arboleda said they will go through Colliers to see if there are other opportunities but at this point only McCoy has been identified.
Another step that the subcommittee wants to take, Charbonneau said, is hearing feedback from the community. “Right now we really don’t know where the community comes down on this,” he said. “People are born and raised and bleed Tolman or Shea, and we want to make sure that the community has a strong voice in whether this project moves forward or not.”
Major benefits of this project include having a brand new state-of-the-art school that will include CTE, Arboleda said. “It’s an opportunity to get something from the ground up (that) truly encapsulates what we would need for our community.”
The timeline is important, Charbonneau said, noting that the school district has stopped the projects they had in the pipeline. If things had gone to plan, renovations at Shea were supposed to be underway already.
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The city has until 2026 to substantially complete the projects they submitted to the Rhode Island Department of Education or it will jeopardize their funding, he said. Those projects include renovations at Shea and Tolman as well as Winters and Baldwin Elementary schools.
Researching the unified high school proposal for longer than six months or a year could put the projects at risk if they decide at the end not to build a new unified campus.
At the meeting, Charbonneau said, some Shea faculty spoke about the need for renovations to happen at Shea at some point.
“There are a lot of positives this could potentially bring,” Charbonneau said, “(but) if it’s not going to work out, we should know that sooner rather than later.”
In an article in The Breeze last week about the cancellation of the Sept. 2 meeting, Arboleda said he was confused as to Charbonneau’s motives for postponing since the administration was prepared to discuss the topics for that meeting. He added that he knows Charbonneau “has voiced his opposition to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our youth at a recent meeting,” but said the administration will continue efforts to properly explore the plan.
Charbonneau responded, saying, “I think it’s unfortunate that the administration would infer that I would be opposed to something that benefits the kids, that really anyone on the School Committee would be opposed to an opportunity to advance the school district. They know better than that. That’s not accurate.”
Charbonneau told The Breeze that he’s never been opposed to the idea but that he still thinks there’s a lot of work to be done to see if the project is feasible.
The subcommittee plans to meet again on Thursday, Sept. 23, he said.