Health, safety focus of revised Portsmouth school improvements

$21.4M Stage II project includes bathroom renovations, HVAC improvements, Memorial Drive upgrade

By Jim McGaw
Posted 7/13/21

It took a long and circuitous route, with several detours due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but after 18 months the school district’s Stage II five-year facilities capital plan is finally in the …

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Health, safety focus of revised Portsmouth school improvements

$21.4M Stage II project includes bathroom renovations, HVAC improvements, Memorial Drive upgrade

Posted

It took a long and circuitous route, with several detours due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but after 18 months the school district’s Stage II five-year facilities capital plan is finally in the state’s hands.

The proposal, which calls for extensive improvements on all four district school buildings and would require voter approval in a November referendum, was once estimated at $65 million.

Due to the pandemic and other factors, however, the district withdrew its Stage II application to the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) in April 2020, and did some serious re-tinkering to focus on health and safety improvements to bring the estimated cost down to $21.44 million.

The new Stage II plan, which is required for the town to receive a minimum state housing aid reimbursements of 35 percent, was approved by the Town Council on June 14, and has since been submitted to the School Building Authority at RIDE, Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy said at the School Committee’s June 29 meeting.

“It’s probably literally a thousand pages when you add up everything and all of the required documents,” Mr. Kenworthy said.

What’s in the plan

The original Stage II plan was far more extensive, calling for 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 — and much more.

With the hindsight of COVID-19, district leaders have since retooled the capital plan to focus on health and safety improvements, including air quality and asbestos removal. School Committee member Allen Shers noted there’s a 5-percent bonus housing aid reimbursement for health and safety improvements.

“What was decided was to focus around the health and safety aspects of the schools, with the proviso that we would be getting back a 40-percent reimbursement,” Mr. Shers said at the June 29 meeting. “As everybody knows, COVID hit, the world changed, and with that, from our original plan, we focused on clean air as the No. 1 target now of desirability.”

Under the resubmitted plan, with a 40-percent housing aid reimbursement of about $8.57 million, the potential net cost to Portsmouth would be around $12.86 million.

The district would have preferred to submit the $65 million renovation plan, but with the pandemic and a questionable economy, Mr. Shers said, “we studied what would be feasible and reasonable with a multitude of concerns in mind.”

That includes renovating all school bathrooms, installing air conditioning in the high school field house, installing an elevator at Hathaway, and abating remaining asbestos materials in the schools. (See related story for more information.)

“We are addressing immediate necessities without being redundant for future improvements at our schools,” Mr. Shers said. “This proposal, after reimbursement, answers our required investment in maintaining our improvements, which is about 2 percent of the budget per year. We have a large investment in our school improvements. Replacement costs would be approximately $300 million today. We must prudently maintain them, which is what this (plan) will continue. It is money well-spent.”

The timing is right from an economical standpoint, said school board member Frederick Faerber III. 

“The interest rates for this are at the lowest point, probably in our lifetimes,” he said. “We conservatively estimated the cost of the bond for this work at three and a half percent. The interest rates right now are well below two and a half percent. The chairman of the Federal Reserve didn’t expect any significant increased in those rates for two years. Whether that’s true or not, we’ll see.”

Costs, priorities questioned

At the June 14 Town Council meeting, local resident Tom Grieb  questioned some costs as well as the decisions made in formulating the revised plan. 

For example, he pointed out that the original plan called for a new roof and windows at the middle school — “Sounds like health and safety to me,” Mr. Grieb said — but now the proposal is to replace the roof at Melville Elementary School only. 

In addition, the new plan calls for installing air conditioning in the high school’s field house, which was not included in the first proposal, he said. Mr. Grieb also questioned why $4.5 million had to be spent to update school bathrooms.

“That’s almost half of what we paid for an entire police station,” he said.

Mr. Kenworthy responded that the district’s Building Committee changed its focus when it reconvened last fall. The decision was made to reduce the scope — and COVID made members rethink things as well, he said.

“The HVAC system at Melville and Hathaway are a great example of that,” the superintendent said.

‘Quite a milestone’

Chris DiIuro, the school district’s director of finance and administration, told the School Committee June 29 that getting the Stage II plan into the state’s hands was “quite a milestone.”

“If everybody remembers, we actually submitted our Stage I (plan) back in October 2019,” said Mr. DiIuro, adding school officials will be meeting with the School Building Authority collaboratively to answer questions and address any issues that arise.

The district hopes the plan is approved by the R.I. Council on Postsecondary Education in November or December. 

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