2016-03-10 / Front Page

Schools Capital Plan Questioned

By James Merolla

In a split becoming familiar to followers of Newport schools, the School Committee voted 5-2 on Tuesday, March 8, to authorize up to $65,000 in additional spending on architectural services associated with the new roof scheduled for construction this summer at Rogers High School.

The committee also gave its approval for a $26 million, five-year capital improvement plan that is required to be submitted to the state by March 15 so that the district can qualify for a 35 percent reimbursement for the cost of that roof.

Both matters moved to the City Council on Wednesday, March 9. They received unanimous support after a lengthy discussion on whether the long-term plan was actually committing future funds.

At the committee level, David Carlin III and Robert Leary objected to both the supplemental roof contract and the capital plan. So far this school year, they have cast a half-dozen votes against matters that could require more taxpayer funds.

“Why are we being asked to vote for a contract that was approved previously?” Carlin asked of the roof contract. Superintendent Colleen Jermain explained that services are needed and that the expenditures were already OK’d by Newport voters in the 2014 bond.

Committee Vice Chair David Hanos said the schools were fortunate to have a firm already in place that could absorb the extra work load on the Rogers roof.

But a larger bone of contention revolved around the five-year capital plan, where the district outlined potential facilities projects.

Newport Director of Public Services William Riccio was on hand to explain that the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) now wants district-wide plans for potential repairs over time in order to ensure that costs are reimbursed to the district.

Carlin said he received the proposed capital plan the previous evening and felt that the process was rushed.

“We are perhaps putting the cart before the horse. We are proposing to pay money with respect to a complete Newport Public Schools system physical upgrade. I found out about this $26 million capital improvement plan just last night,” said Carlin. “It is borderline absurd to do this within 24 hours and I’m going to vote against it.”

“I look at it as an investment into the buildings. If we don’t spend we are going to be in the same problem areas as we were before,” added committee member Sandra Flowers.

“This is our best effort to put forward a realistic plan for this district,” said Riccio. “If we don’t submit a capital plan, there is no chance at reimbursement.”

The $26 million plan is just a proposal, he emphasized, and noted that it required approval from both the committee and the City Council.

“You have to follow the procedure and the process,” said Riccio. “It’s not realistic to submit on a project-by-project basis. This proposal gives a picture of district facilities to get a snapshot of what will come. You are not authorizing money tonight, just the plan.”

Riccio further explained that this is a new process that the state has implemented to fund projects.

“RIDE went from a rolling submission to a hard-date calendar submission. This is all new to me. [We have gone] from a housing aid [school construction] program to a Fast Track program, which allows for quicker reimbursement to ‘replenish the pot’ so you can continually move on targeted items in the plan without having to wait for one reimbursement over the year.”

“I would have loved to have seen a public forum on this whole thing, going forward. We didn’t have one public forum on this, not one, or any public comment,” said Leary.

With the majority of committee members approving the architectural contract and capital plan notwithstanding the comments of Carlin and Leary, the City Council weighed in the following evening.

Councilors dispensed with the roof contract quickly. “The repair of the roof is a necessity, not an option,” said Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano.

With the associated capital plan, Councilor Kathryn Leonard raised objections similar to those expressed by Carlin, questioning the timing and whether the city was committing itself to future capital outlays.

Councilor John Florez confirmed that “a lot of folks thought we were voting on a $26 million expenditure tonight.”

But the plan was approved for submission to the state after councilors received repeated assurances from the city administration that the long-range planning document was not obligatory and was being submitted to the state only as a requirement of the new reimbursement process for projects actually undertaken.

–With additional reporting by Barry Bridges

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