Building improvements top Portsmouth schools' 2020 agenda

Capital request to state will call for ‘substantial’ renovations of all 4 buildings

By Jim McGaw
Posted 1/10/20

PORTSMOUTH — School officials are gearing up to submit a Stage II application to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) for major improvements to its four school …

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Building improvements top Portsmouth schools' 2020 agenda

Capital request to state will call for ‘substantial’ renovations of all 4 buildings


PORTSMOUTH — School officials are gearing up to submit a Stage II application to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) for major improvements to its four school buildings. 

The proposed renovations, which would require a multimillion-dollar bond issue and generous reimbursements from the state, are extensive: Relocating the fifth grade to the elementary schools and adding classrooms to both Hathaway and Melville, moving classrooms to exterior walls at the middle school, making pickup and drop-off safer at Melville, improving the parking scheme and expanding the community space at Hathaway, linking the high school building to its field house and adding a student commons area to that building as well — plus a whole lot more.

(The Portsmouth Times will spotlight details of the proposed improvements — which would total about $65 million before state reimbursements — in the coming weeks.)

This is the time to seize the moment, School Committee Chairwoman Emily Copeland said during an interview last week, when she gave a broad overview of the district’s major agenda items for 2020.

“This is probably our No. 1 critical issue, because if we do not get a Stage II capital plan approved, we are not eligible for any reimbursement from the state for our capital improvements,” she said.

Rhode Island voters approved the Statewide School Construction Bond in November 2018, which activated six new temporary bonus incentives and access to $250 million in upfront funding to support the state share of foundation school housing aid. 

Most years, districts are eligible for a 30- to 35-percent reimbursement rate, Ms Copeland said. But with the $250 million bond, there’s now an extra pot of money and incentives, she said.

“We may be eligible for up to 50 percent. I’m fairly certain we will get more than 35 or 40,” she said.

Like other districts, Portsmouth must apply under the multi-stage Necessity of School Construction process to be considered for reimbursement. RIDE already has the district’s Stage I application (due last September), which merely notified the agency of the district’s intention to make improvements. The Stage II application, which identifies concrete proposals for each school — improvements that the district would be willing to go to bond for — is due Feb. 17.

Presentation on Monday

On Monday, Jan. 13, school administrators and StudioJAED, an architectural and engineering firm out of Providence, will brief the Town Council on the full scope of the proposed projects beginning at 6 p.m. at Town Hall. (The regular council meeting will follow at 7 p.m.)

The School Committee is expected to vote on the proposal Jan. 28, and the Town Council will decide whether to allow its submission to RIDE in early February, according to Ms. Copeland. 

“These approvals, while strong indications of our intent, do not commit the town,” she stressed. “The next step would be for RIDE to review our submission and report back by end of May/early June. At that point we would know what all would be eligible for reimbursement. Then as a community, we will decide what we move forward with.”

Ms. Copeland said the middle school is the building that was tagged as being most in need of renovations. However, the district proposes to spread out any funding for improvements to all four schools.  

“Everybody has to understand, we’re not building a new school. We’re making substantial improvements to all four buildings for what it would cost to build one new school,” she said.

Even if a new middle school were to be built, she said, RIDE’s reimbursement rules would dictate its design, she added. “If we were to tear down the middle school and build a new one, RIDE would not allow us to build a theater, and the gym would have to be a lot smaller, (due to) their guidelines for total number of students,” Ms. Copeland said.

Estimated total: $65 million

The proposed school improvements would cost about $65 million. “That’s the total project cost, not showing the reimbursement,” Ms. Copeland said, noting the cost to taxpayers would be about $35 to $40 million if the plan were approved by local officials, state officials and then voters in a November 2020 bond referendum. (The town may have have some capital projects of its own to include on the referendum, she noted.)

“We hope to work collaboratively with the town to come up with something that the town can afford that would meet the needs of the schools,” Ms. Copeland said. “If the bond got approved, we would then have probably a year of architectural drawings, the planning, etcetera, etcetera. You’d probably have shovels in the ground probably the following summer (2021).”

The project would probably take anywhere from two to four years to complete.

Is funding realistic?

Ms. Copeland said she understands many people are cynical about the local district’s chances of receiving substantial reimbursements from the state for school building improvements, but she’s confident Portsmouth will be in line for funding. In any event, school officials must be aggressive in coming up with a plan, or the school community will miss out altogether, she said.

“What people have to understand is that some of these incentives expire,” she said. “If we waited 10 years, or five years, we might not get that money. But right now, the money is there. It’s not like we have to wait for the legislature to allocate it each year. I think that cynicism that ‘Portsmouth will never get it’ is way overstated.”

District officials have already hosted several community forums about their plans for each individual school, and Ms. Copeland said another session will be held soon to give residents an overview of the entire project.

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