The Town Council met in joint session with the School Committee last week and voted 4-1 in favor of spending $1 million to renovate the library at East Greenwich High School. Councilman Mike Kiernan was the lone dissenting vote.
The money will come from the surplus from the $52 million bond passed in 2008 to build a new Cole Middle School and complete other school renovations. The School Committee did not have the EGHS library on its list of projects to be completed with the $52 million. But it had been on an earlier list, part of the School Committee’s initial request for a $62 million bond request. The Town Council cut that number to $52 million, which was the figure that was passed by voters in November 2008.
The downturn in the economy, however, resulted in lower than expected bids on both the new middle school and other projects. The advisory School Building Committee spent months discussing how best to proceed with the surplus, eventually proposing roof fixes at several of the schools, a technology upgrade at EGHS, an expanded plan to fix the moisture and floor problems at Meadowbrook, and renovation of the EGHS library.
The School Committee voted to approve the $988,000 proposal for the library in early August. The Town Council had to approve the library, however, and time was suddenly of the essence, with the state General Assembly’s decision in late June to stop reimbursement on all school building projects not complete by Dec. 31.
School Building Committee Chairman Jay Gowell stated the case of the library renovation to the Council.
“Clearly the high school library is the top priority - it’s state-of-the-art 1967,” he said. “It was sort of glaringly obvious that this is the most important thing at the high school.”
The plan would replace light fixtures, reconfigure the circulation area, provide increased seating and computer areas, and new paint. If costs allow, the library could expand into the hallway to increase space there and provide an additional classroom on the second floor.
“The goal is clearly to get the extra space as well,” said Jon Winikur, with project manager Strategic Building Solutions.
The work would be done without the usual bid process. Rules set down by the General Assembly require that any additional work to part of an existing project - E.J. Burman is already working at EGHS, putting on a new roof so to be able to get the 40 percent state reimbursement, E.J. Burman must undertake the library job.
While school officials conceded that the arrangement is less than ideal, they argued that the money was there (through the surplus), the 40 percent state reimbursement would be available and Burman had done a lot of work on the high school in time and for less than anticipated (including the science wing in 2009).
As Town Council members spoke, four of the five indicated that they would support the project.
“I like to make good investments. I look at this whole situation as an investment,” said Mark Gee. And, he added, “I love a good discount. Forty percent is a good deal.”
Councilman Jeff Cianciolo said he wanted to make sure that students coming from brand new Cole Middle School did not take a step down in coming to the older East Greenwich High School.
“I think we really have a critical need,” he said. He said that the lack of a firm commitment on price did not concern him greatly since the track record had been a good one with Burman.
“I’ve struggled with the additions to the bond,” said Council President Michael Isaacs. “We do have the ability to bring [the high school library] up to par with Cole. I think it goes beyond cosmetics. I think we do want to maximize the reimbursment … and this furthers that goal. And we will still some savings.”
Under the plan outlined by school officials, there would be a $613,000 savings to the $52 million bond.
For Kiernan, however, those reasons were not convincing. Not only did he see the plan as little more than a redecorating proposal, but he questioned if it could be done with the money proposed.
“We have no firm bid,” he said. “We have no commitment from the contractor.”
In addition, Kiernan brought up the extra costs that were coming the town’s way next year. “We’re looking at some serious, serious budget issues,” said Kiernan. “Wants and needs have to be balanced.”