The move signifies their intent to try and borrow up to $200 million to make repairs and potentially build a new high school. But there are a lot of steps between now and that future.
During a meeting at the Reynolds School on Monday night in Bristol, the Bristol Warren School Committee unanimously authorized the preparation of legislation which would potentially allow the district to borrow up to $200 million in bonds to repair, renovate, or construct entirely new school buildings over the next few years.
The action is preliminary. It does not commit the district to going out to bond, but rather notifies their consideration of doing so. Additionally, there are numerous steps which have to fall in place within tight deadlines in order for the district to successfully obtain any bond funding — and capture up to 78% reimbursement from the state for any repairs or new construction that would enable.
The immediate next step is to get approval from the district’s Joint Finance Committee tonight, during a meeting at Mt. Hope High School, where the board will deliberate the $200 million ceiling that was approved. If they approve, it will enable state legislators to submit a bill allowing that borrowing to happen, which will need to be approved by both chambers and signed before the general assembly recesses on June 30.
While all that is happening, the district would need to perform outreach to the broader community via a chosen Educational Leadership Team (ELT) to determine what projects at which schools would become top priority. This would include public meetings and informational sessions.
But ultimately, the decision of whether Bristol and Warren taxpayers will be open to the idea of a bond worth up to $200 million would come down to the special election happening in November, where they would approve or deny the measure on a ballot question. That ballot question would need to be submitted to the Board of Elections by Sept. 18.
As for the process of crafting a list of projects, signing on engineering firms to design them and contracting firms to actually get projects built, the process faces a deadline of Dec. 31 for the district to qualify for bonuses that could increase their reimbursement rate from 63% to 78% — which has large implications for the financial toll the bonds would take on each community.
All of this is to say that there is very little room for error within a sprawling process that involves thousands of stakeholders across the two towns. That point was referenced by a member of the school committee directly.
“Has your team ever performed on such a quick schedule in the past?” Karen Cabral asked Chad Crittenden, Managing Director of PMA Consultants, who led the presentation alongside the district’s chosen architectural firm, Perkins Eastman.
“We have, definitely, yes,” Crittenden answered. “You have to be five steps ahead of even yourself…We will need to multitask. But it’s achievable and it’s happened before under the RIDE program and we’re ready to do whatever it takes.”
The need for school repairs
The school committee vote was the first step in the second phase of the school construction process set forth by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), which began in 2018 when Rhode Island voters approved $250 million in bonds to reimburse communities for school construction projects that prioritized creating warm, safe, and dry learning environments. An additional $250 million in bond funding towards that goal was approved by voters in 2022.
Bristol Warren, back in February, submitted their Phase 1 application to RIDE — which included an assessment of school building conditions and breaks out needed repairs based on three priorities: Priority 1 (critically needed repairs); Priority 2 (important repairs); and Priority 3 (repairs that can be deferred).
The report, generated by the Canada-based Colliers Project Leaders, identified 134 separate projects among the district’s seven school buildings (Colt Andrews is categorized as two individual buildings). Among those projects, upwards of 95% of them were identified as Priority 1 or Priority 2. The total estimated cost of these repairs just to address the most critical needs was listed at $27 million across the district.
This includes 27 projects at Mt. Hope High School, amounting to an estimated $18 million in repairs alone, of which $13.2 million was deemed by Colliers to be Priority 1 repairs, and includes such high-ticket items as a new roof, HVAC upgrades, ADA compliance, safety concerns, and a myriad of leaks and outdated features that accompany a building that was constructed in 1965.
Kickemuit Middle School had 26 projects identified, a striking 97% of which were identified as Priority 1 or Priority 2, and was estimated to cost $3.7 million to bring up to satisfactory standards. The school is even older than Mt. Hope, built in 1958, and includes a similar laundry list of roof and exterior repairs, HVAC, and electrical problems.
As far as elementary school needs, Hugh Cole in Warren by far leads the pack, with 32 individual projects identified for an estimated cost of $3.4 million. Of those projects, around 68% ($2.3 million) were Priority 1 and 30% ($1 million) were Priority 2.
Rockwell and Guiteras were each identified with $1.2 million in needed repairs, although only around 11% of Rockwell’s constitute Priority 1 issues, while Guiteras had 44% Priority 1. The Colt portion of Colt Andrews had $723,000 in identified needs, around 41% of which were Priority 1. The Andrews portion of Colt Andrews had $435,000 in needs, but only $75,000 of which were Priority 1.
The Phase 2 application is due by Sept. 15 to RIDE, which would include a list of identified projects, cost estimates for each, a project timeline, and approvals from each community’s governing bodies.
Talk of a new high school takes spotlight
Throughout the discussion at the meeting, the hypothetical construction of a new high school was addressed multiple times — though it should be made clear, there is no commitment to building a new high school at this stage in the process.
For their part, Perkins Eastman personnel stated that the high school could face three potential paths — renovation occurring in multiple phases, new construction (either on the existing site or on a new, yet-to-be-identified parcel in either Bristol or Warren), or a hybrid, involving renovation of some existing portions of the building combined with new construction to improve the building’s design and safety.
Superintendent Ana Riley said that Bristol Town Administrator Steven Contente had been working with her to identify possible parcels that could hypothetically suit a new home for a new high school. Such a parcel would need to be over 7 acres large, and so far, Riley said none of the potential parcels have fit the bill.
School Committee Secretary Tara Thibaudeau, of Warren, asked if the district needed to place the high school in Bristol. She was informed that the enabling legislation for the Bristol Warren regional district allows the school to be placed in either municipality.
The potential financial impact of the proposed school bond will be broken down in a future article once the process advances further than this preliminary step, however Superintendent Riley pointed out at the meeting that the school has an outstanding debt service totaling $6.23 million that will mature on May 15, 2028, implying that there is room for borrowing.
Once that debt matures, “The new bond would be the only bond on our books,” she said.