Despite opposition, school committee moves forward on new schools plan

Resident: ‘The whole thing has been done so horribly’

By Josh Bickford
Posted 8/19/22

On Thursday night, members of the Barrington School Committee voted to move forward on their facilities master plan. Committee members voted 4-0 to accept “Option 2B” which includes the …

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Despite opposition, school committee moves forward on new schools plan

Resident: ‘The whole thing has been done so horribly’

Posted

On Thursday night, members of the Barrington School Committee voted to move forward on their facilities master plan. Committee members voted 4-0 to accept “Option 2B” which includes the construction of two new elementary schools (grades 1 to 5) at the Primrose Hill and Hampden Meadows sites, the construction of a new early learning center at the Nayatt School location, and the closure of Sowams School. 

Members of the school building committee had earlier recommended Option 2B from among six conceptual options or “pathways” created by the architecture firm, Kaestle Boos Associates. 

But beyond those individuals on the school building committee, or those on the school committee, there does not appear to be much support for the plan.

Some residents spoke in opposition to the plan and the process during earlier school building committee meetings, and a handful of people shared their concerns at Thursday night’s meeting. 

Rob Swartz shared a prepared statement with members of the school committee. The Sowams area resident said the district does not need to make progressive, radical changes to its neighborhood elementary school model.

“Our request is reasonable. Preserve all current schools. Slow down. While maximizing state funding is obviously alluring, it’s no excuse to support a plan to transform the character of this community,” Swartz read from his statement. “There is genuine opposition by your constituents to the loss of any of our schools, but general support for needed renovation to turn our schools into what they need to be in the future. Our schools are already great. They don’t need progressive, radical transformation. They need repair, and a few additions for a bit more space. We don’t need fewer of them. Perhaps the answer lies in needing one more.”

Swarts said Barrington is a town characterized by its neighborhood schools, and that eliminating any of the elementary schools would be an emotional and practical loss for Barrington. 

Swartz also cited the Rhode Island Department of Education’s Building Authority Regulation 4.6.6 “Smart Growth Planning.”

“Smart growth schools involve the community in school facility planning, make use of existing resources, such as historic school buildings, are located within neighborhoods and fit into the scale and design of the neighborhood, and are usually small in size,” Swartz quoted the regulation. 

He then referenced the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s publication “Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl: Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School.” He said the publication recommends that districts should plan for “smaller neighborhood schools.”

In a letter to the editor, Linden Road resident Michael Coburn posed a question to local school officials: “Can we not preserve the value of neighborhood schools and eliminate the awkward (and educationally questionable) separate 4-5 school by adding grades 4 and 5 to each of the three existing elementary schools?”

He continued: “There would seem to be ample land at each location for expansion. I am sure there are many facilities challenges to such a plan but, educationally, it would be a wonderful opportunity for creativity by the talented and energetic teachers and principals we have.”

During the meeting, school committee members tried to emphasize that approval of Option 2B did not lock the district into that specific plan, that there was flexibility to make a myriad of changes before moving forward with any construction. 

School committee member Patrick McCrann, who also sits on the school building committee, said there was a bit of confusion surrounding the recommendation of Option 2B, in that he has been told that officials were not voting on specifics. He said that there was even discussion that the district could choose to move the early learning center (pre-kindergarten and kindergarten) into Sowams School and instead shutter Nayatt School. 

McCrann also asked if there would be further opportunities for public engagement. District Director of Finance and Administration Doug Fiore said there would be plenty more school building committee meetings in the coming weeks. 

McCrann later said that he has heard from people that there has not been enough public engagement with this process. He said he harbors concerns about the future success of the project if there are numerous people in Barrington who are opposed or unaware of the plans. 

Gina Bae, the chairwoman of the Barrington School Committee, said she too had heard concerns from community members. She then said she would counter those concerns by reminding people of the opportunities to get involved in the process. She mentioned two previous online forums and a pair of deep dive visioning sessions.

Residents Susannah Holloway and Kiela Daley each took turns challenging that remark during the public comment period. Holloway, the vice chair of the town’s Committee on Appropriations, said she applied to be part of the visioning sessions and was denied. She read the denial letter she received from Barrington Superintendent of Schools Michael Messore. 

Daley spoke via Zoom. She said she also wanted to be part of the visioning session but was denied. Daley added that she knows multiple people who wanted to participate but were also turned away. 

Some people were also upset that the school committee had shifted the public comment period to earlier in the meeting before the committee voted on Option 2B. Ellen Schaffer said that by eliminating the later public comment period, members of the public would not be able to react to the vote. 

Deb Nyser said she was “very disheartened” by what she saw with the school committee. She questioned whether it fair to hold the school building committee meetings during the afternoons (meetings were usually at 3:45 p.m.) when many people are still working. 

Nyser also said that two members of the school committee — she was referring to Bae and Erika Sevetson — are not even running for re-election to the committee in the fall, and questioned whether they should make such an important decision. 

Nyser said the committee’s communication of the plan has been “horrible,” adding that members also exhibited a disturbing arrogance.

“The whole thing has been done so horribly,” she said. “I don’t understand why this vote is being taken.”

Maria Vassilieva, an Anthony Road resident, said she spoke to her neighbors and none of them knew about the district’s plans. 

“I actually talked to a neighbor of mine who works for the town and he had no idea this was happening,” Vassilieva said during an interview following the meeting. “Only those who follow the school committee stuff, and that would be a small number of parents who are involved. The rest of us are clueless.”

During the meeting, Vassilieva told school committee members that most residents have no idea how much their taxes will increase because of the cost of the project. 

An early estimate for Option 2B is between $97.9 and $123.8 million. 

“The truth is I bought a house eight years ago and the taxes went up by a factor of two already. At this rate, what am I going to be paying in five, ten years? Twenty grand a year?” Vassilieva said. “This is ridiculous. I have a modest home and I shouldn’t be paying this much as it is, and now they want to add this project. 

“Is this a joke? Are they laughing at us? It’s going to go up and we all know it. Whatever they decide on is going to increase our taxes significantly. And I can live with spending money on renovations. I’m all for it, because some schools in town definitely need that. But to impose this project on all of us when I haven’t met a single person that wants this, it is just unbelievable. I don’t know what to say.”

Vassilieva said her frustration level regarding this project is “through the roof.”

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