A glimpse into the future for Portsmouth schools

Council gets peek at proposed $65M school renovations that could end up on November ballot

By Jim McGaw
Posted 1/15/20

PORTSMOUTH — On Monday, Town Council members got their first look at what the district’s four schools could look like if approximately $65 million in major capital improvements are …

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A glimpse into the future for Portsmouth schools

Council gets peek at proposed $65M school renovations that could end up on November ballot


PORTSMOUTH — On Monday, Town Council members got their first look at what the district’s four schools could look like if approximately $65 million in major capital improvements are realized.

The School Department is preparing to submit a Stage II application to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) for the renovations, which would include relocating the fifth grade to the elementary schools, adding classrooms and making site improvements at both Hathaway and Melville, moving classrooms to exterior walls and adding breakout spaces for specialized learning at the middle school, eliminating the E Wing and linking the field house to the main school building at the high school, and more.

“We’re not asking you to vote to approve this,” Chris DiIuro, the’s school district’s director of finance and administration, told the council. School officials will be back in February seeking council approval, however, and then the application will go to RIDE for its review. After that, the district wants to include a bond referendum on the ballot in November.

School officials say the time to make the needed improvements is now, since taxpayers would realize significant savings due to extra state reimbursements that are available. Voters across Rhode Island 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 on interest payments. But with the $250 million bond, there’s now an extra pot of money and incentives, say school officials, who are optimistic that reimbursements anywhere from 40 to 50 percent could be realized.

“You have very good schools, but now we have an opportunity to make them great,” said Phillip Conte of StudioJAED, an architectural and engineering firm in Providence that’s been leading the project planning for the district. 

One of the biggest changes under the proposal is relocating the fifth to Hathaway and Melville, a move he said is supported not only by the school administration and wider community but by RIDE as well. “It’s more age-appropriate for the fifth grade to be in the elementary schools,” Mr. Conte said.

Middle school: $19.97 million

The extra space at the middle school will allow for significant classroom renovations and reorganization in that building, he said. 

“When we remove the fifth grade, we now have the opportunity to renovate that space to create right-size classrooms” with windows and breakout rooms. “By removing the internal cafeterias, we were able to provide corridors so we can more appropriately circulate throughout the building.”

Council member J. Mark Ryan said he was happy to hear that the plans for PMS mean the end of “interior classrooms with poor ventilation.”

The proposal also includes a student commons area, a new roof and windows, and bathroom renovations.

Hathaway: $8.84 million

Plans for Hathaway include a new main entrance addition with an elevator, a new classroom addition, an extended cafeteria, bathroom renovations and a larger septic system. 

Melville: $8.39 million

Melville will also see a new main entrance and classroom additions that will link the school’s two wings, plus bathroom renovations. Both elementary schools would see site improvements for safe drop-off and pick-up, as well as additional parking.

PHS: $26.67 million

One of the biggest changes at the high school “includes select building demolition to the E Wing, which was the oldest part of the building,” Mr. Conte said, adding that RIDE agrees with that move. 

The extra space would be used for more parking and appropriate spaces for buses. The field house to the west would be linked to the main building and a student commons area would be formed and connected to the relocated library. The road that now passes between the two buildings would be looped around the field house to the west. There would also be select classroom renovations and bathroom improvements. 

Mr. Conte said the School Committee is scheduled to vote on the Stage II application on Jan. 28, and hopes the council will sign off on Feb. 10 before it is submitted to RIDE by Feb. 14. If voters approve a bond this November, the district could see “shovels in the ground by spring of 2022,” he said.

Questions over costs

Several comments were made by council members and a resident regarding the project’s considerable costs. Council member Keith Hamilton said the real cost of the project would be in the vicinity of $80 million — there would be about $2.5 million in annual debt service, he said — when the interest on the bond is included. 

Larry Fitzmorris, of the taxpayer group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens, pointed out that the estimated bond for the project is about the same as the entire town budget. “The largest bond I can remember anyone asking for around here was in 1998, for $9.2 million,” Mr. Fitzmorris said.

He estimated the first year’s payment on the bond would be about $4.2 million. “On the first year, you pay the whole hog; you don’t get reimbursed for it,” he said.

Mr. Fitzmorris said the council needs to understand how such a bond would affect the budget — not to mention the fact that voters may also be asked to fund the development of a new community center in November.

“There’s going to be a very large impact on the taxpayers,” he said. “If we drive our debt up very fast, chances are we’ll lose our AAA bond rating and we’ll be paying a higher rate.”

Council member Leonard Katzman, however, said taxpayers also need to think about the consequences if such a large investment is not made at this time. Newport is facing “extraordinary” expenses to replace its high school, he said. 

“The reason they’re in that situation is because they deferred maintenance for too long — decades,” Mr. Katzman said. “That information needs to be on the table so people know we’re on a path to protect Portsmouth. If this were not to pass, what are the consequences?”

Added Mr. Hamilton, “It’s a large number and it’s for 30 years, and we have to make sure that the 14 of us and staff are making the right decision for those 30 years.”

Whatever is decided, Council President Kevin Aguiar said, the town can pay only what it’s able to afford. “I can assure you we will not be getting in over our heads,” he said.

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