NORTH SMITHFIELD – Facing financial uncertainties caused by Covid-19 and a demolition/rehabilitation project that could cost the town more than $1 million, Town Administrator Gary Ezovski says he thinks the School Department should hand over money saved during some recent building improvements.
But School Committee Chairman James Lombardi says that recently-completed work at district schools cost far beyond the funding initially received through construction bonds for the projects, and that any money used for future improvements at the high school belongs to the School Department.
The issue was the source of some tension between the administrator and committee chairman at a virtual meeting on Monday, June 1.
The conflict follows a School Committee vote to replace windows in the locker room at North Smithfield High School at a cost of $210,000 as part of a construction project currently under review by the Rhode Island Department of Education.
“I’m asking you to join me in this argument that some of this money should be used for the work that needs to be done at Halliwell,” Ezovski told members of the Town Council. “For the past 25 years we’ve turned our back on that property, and I’m saying I’ve had enough.”
Ezovski and council members were critical of school officials for the current conditions at Halliwell – a school used by town residents for some 62 years before students were assigned to newer town schools at the end of last year.
“I was seriously disappointed in the condition that school was left in when the School Department left it,” said Council Chairman Paul Vadenais. “Just to clean up the mess that was left is going to cost $50,000 to $60,000.”
Councilor Terri Bartomioli agreed.
“It looked like there was a bomb scare and they never came back to class,” Bartomioli said.
The future of the former school has been under consideration over the past several months, and Ezovski noted that he considered putting $40,000 in this year’s budget to finance a study on the 32-acre property.
“We already have that money in the bond funds,” Ezovski said.
But Lombardi disputed the idea that anything remains from a $4.3 million bond passed for school improvements by voters in 2014. More than $3 million was used to expand North Smithfield Elementary School, and according to a chart provided to the council this week, the project came in $149,000 under budget.
The district also came in under budget on a project to replace science labs at the high school, according to the presentation.
Lombardi defended the decision to spend money on the windows, noting that funds for the high school received through the bonds has long been spent, and both projects were completed with school surplus accounts.
“We have efficiently spent all of our money,” Lombardi said. “All of the projects have come within budget. What we want to do on the school side is continue to improve schools.”
Lombardi said he was “shocked,” by the discussion.
“I don’t understand what the issue is,” Lombardi said. “I don’t know what’s going on. It’s completely ridiculous. We’re not doing anything wrong. We’re doing everything perfect.”
Vadenais said that last year, Halliwell had to be turned over to the town for action to be taken, an act that took place in October.
“You saw the emails. I’m not going to make them public,” Lombardi said without elaborating on the exchange.
“We’re not saying you’re doing anything wrong with the funding on this thing,” Vadenais said. “We’re trying to make sure that we have enough funding from that bond money to take care of Halliwell.”
The district does receive a roughly 40 percent reimbursement on qualifying construction projects at school facilities via a “revolving fund,” aimed at reinvestment.
“The bond money is gone,” said Lombardi. “Now you’re going to use the 40 percent that was reimbursed for a non-school property?”
Lombardi said that $300,000 has been set aside for Halliwell decommissioning, as required by the bond.
But Ezovski said the project is expected to cost far more.
“It’s my perspective that that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we really need at Halliwell,” he said. “There are already two buildings I believe are unsalvageable due to mold.”
Councilor Claire O’Hara said she thinks immediate work at Halliwell is a necessity.
“What’s happening to the grounds and these buildings will be costly,” O’Hara said. “I think Halliwell should be taken care of first.”
“I don’t argue that those things need to be done,” Ezovski said of the windows. “The question is: should it be done with this money?”
“We’re going into a budget challenge that is very difficult,” he added. “We could easily spend $1 million at Halliwell. Do we need windows to be replaced? Every one of them that hasn’t been replaced. Should it be done with this money? No.”
Ezovski noted that the district will continue to receive reimbursements from RIDE, and told councilors he had already met with school officials to discuss the issue.
“That initiative, I’m sad to say, was not productive,” the administrator said.
Councilor Paul Zwolenski asked if the council could hold a joint meeting with members of the School Committee.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Zwolenski said. “I would like to be involved in this conversation.”
O’Hara agreed to the idea of a joint meeting.
“I think speaking with them would be alright, but Halliwell, as far as I’m concerned, needs to be addressed,” she said. “I’ll never forget how I saw it.”
Vadenais said he also hopes to address the status of the $4.3 bond and where it currently stands.
“They’re doing a great job,” Vadenais said. “I just think we need to get a handle on what we’re responsible for.”
“That money is long gone,” Lombardi repeated. “We had to spend much more to do those projects than what the bond had. We had to spend a surplus of $1 million plus.”
Lombardi suggested that the two boards could meet before an upcoming School Committee meeting and schedule the gathering a half hour early.
Vadenais responded, “I think this is going to be a lot longer than a half hour Mr. Lombardi.”