After two hours of discussion, members voted 5-0 to spend $988,000 to renovate the East Greenwich High School library at Tuesday night’s School Committee meeting.
The money had been slated to come from the surplus from the $52 million bond passed by voters in 2008 for the new Cole Middle School and other projects, including the new entrance at the high school. Those projects came in several million dollars under budget.
The state General Assembly’s recent three-year moratorium on all Department of Education-reimbursable building projects has forced the School Committee into a “spend it or lose it” proposition, at least in regard to getting 40 percent reimbursement from the state.
And the state has limited the usable surplus funds to just what's left over from high school building projects. That means the School Committee has $988,000 for the library.
In addition, the the district would have to use the construction company that has done the work so far at the high school - . That would mean that the work would not go out to a competitive bid.
The would include, at minimum, a substantial make-over, with new lighting, an improved heating system, and a new layout. But there is a bigger plan that would increase the size of the library by pushing into the hallway and eliminating a staircase there.
Of the five School Committee members present (Susan Records and Paul Martin were absent), several seemed in favor of this second plan, with Mary Ellen Winters suggesting that the first plan was a mere “re-decorating.” But the second plan is estimated to cost around $1.2 million.
The big question was, what will the Town Council have to say about the plan? The Council must approve any spending authorized by the School Committee. Two Council members attended the meeting - Jeff Cianciolo and Michael Kiernan. While neither of them indicated how they would vote, during the discussion, Kiernan did have questions.
“Am I comfortable? Absolutely not,” said Kiernan when asked what he thought of the $988,000 proposal. “I need to know exactly how and why the money’s going to be spent.”
The School Committee has seen two proposals on the library from project architect SMMA. At Tuesday's meeting, Jon Winikur, of project manager Strategic Building Solutions, said that cost specifics would only come once the project was allowed to proceed.
Still, he said, contractor E.W. Burman was aware of the situation and was working on a bid. That was being paid for, according to officials, through an allocation of $15,000 made two weeks ago to cover initial library expenses. That money will be forfeited if the project is not ultimately approved.
Committeeman Jack Sommer spoke forcefully against what he described as a hasty decision.
"I'm concerned about the time pressure," he said. He asked Supt. Victor Mercurio to research the situation a bit more with the state Department of Education to see if there were alternatives. Sommer noted that more than $3 million had been allocated to fix the Meadowbrook floor and wanted to know if a bit of that money could be used to augment the $988,000 for the library.
Winikur, of SBS, said that even a day's delay at this point would put the project in jeopardy. By initial estimates, the project would take 12 weeks. Winikur said that if acted on soon, it was definitely possible under that time-frame, noting that the more complicated EGHS science labs were completed in 10 weeks. But, he warned against too much delay.
School Committee Chairwoman Deidre Gifford, who met with Council President Michael Isaacs last week on this issue, said she was very uncertain if the Town Council would approve any project if it was not very strictly defined.
The proposal will go before the full Town Council at a meeting on Sept. 6.