$147M schools bond clears first hurdle

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A proposed $147 million bond to fund an ambitious five-year facilities improvement plan for the city’s schools passed one of its first hurdles Monday night.

The City Council’s Finance Committee unanimously backed a resolution asking the General Assembly to authorize placing the bond question before voters on the November ballot. The measure will still require approval of the full council later this month before being forwarded to state lawmakers, but that seems assured given the 7-0 committee vote.

Acknowledging the size of the request and the financial uncertainty the city faces due to the current crisis, Cranston Public Schools Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse nonetheless urged the bond question to be put before voters, describing the work it would fund as “really important for the legacy of the city.”

“I am not unaware that we are potentially facing the most difficult budget season that any of us have faced in public office. Unfortunately, our timing is impeccable,” she told council members during the WebEx virtual meeting, adding: “I am hopeful that some day we will pull out of this budget difficulty, and we will still have schools that are in dire need of repair and renovation. “If we don’t pass this plan, then we don’t have any plan for any repairs that would allow us to get reimbursement from the state.”

Planning for the bond question, and the projects that it would finance, has been ongoing for roughly two years. The request involves approximately $133 million for five specific projects, along with an additional $14 million Nota-Masse has previously described as a “built-in insurance policy” to address needs in any of the district’s other buildings over the five-year term of construction.

The five-year facilities plan includes continued renovations at Eden Park Elementary School; the modernization and expansion Garden City Elementary School; the replacement of Gladstone Elementary School; additional renovations at Park View Middle School; and improvements at Cranston High School West.

The plan was developed in conjunction with the educational planning and design firm Fielding Nair International, or FNI, over a period of roughly 18 months.

Last year, the Pathfinder Project at Eden Park Elementary School – which involved the renovation of an entire wing into a 21st-century learning space – provided a glimpse of the work planned at the other buildings. Nota-Masse said since the new wing opened, the school has seen “stunning results” in terms of lower absenteeism, improved engagement and fewer disciplinary issues.

“Our plan has been hailed as one of the leading, most innovative, most exciting plans in the state of Rhode Island,” Nota-Masse said. “We have worked really, really hard to make sure that teachers, students, families, everyone had an opportunity to weigh in on what they wanted their school to look like …We have the data to prove that those renovated spaces really do help our students.”

Nota-Masse said aside from the educational benefits and the fact that many of the district’s schools are advanced in age and in need of physical improvements, a major driver of the need to act is the available of reimbursement through the state thanks to a bond question approved by Rhode Island voters in 2018. She said Cranston is in line to receive reimbursement of up to 74 percent of the costs for the projects targeted under the five-year plan.

Each of the council members participating in Monday’s meeting asked to co-sponsor the resolution and spoke highly of the district’s work on the facilities improvement plan.

“All we have to do is walk through [Eden Park] to know what the future of our city should look like … We need to envision the rest of our city looking like that,” Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins said.

“I think this is something that’s going to benefit the entire city,” Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas said. “People move to Cranston because of our school system.”

“This was collaborative for everyone, because I think we all see the need to do this … I think the people need to tell us if this is something they want to spend their hard-earned tax dollars on,” Council President Michael Farina said.

Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley added: “This isn’t a luxury. This is a necessity.”

Climate change bond question continued

Elsewhere on Monday’s agenda, a proposal from Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos and Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan to seek voter approval for a $5 million bond aimed at improving the city’s energy efficiency as part of the effort to combat climate change was continued until the Finance Committee’s June meeting.

Several committee members, including Ward 4 Councilman Ed Brady and Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas, expressed support for the concept but asked for more information regarding how the bond funding would be utilized and how any money spent would be incorporated into the city’s annual debt service payments.

Finance Director Robert Strom, citing the school bond question and the impending need for borrowing to support capital needs in other departments, said he is concerned about placing added strain on the city’s debt service obligations going forward. He said the $5 million bond, if spent fully, would cost $1.9 million in interest over a 20-year term.

Hopkins echoed that sentiment, saying: “As much as I like the idea, I just think looking at the economy down the road, I think the debt service could be a problem for us.”

Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio, the committee’s chairman, went further in questioning the need for the bond. He suggested energy efficiency is already a priority for various city departments.

“I don’t really see the need to have a general bond fund [for energy efficiency] … and we don’t have any specific projects that we’re looking at,” he said.

Stycos and Donegan acknowledged the financial difficulties that lie ahead, but framed the proposal as meant to provide needed tools and resources for city leaders in the years ahead.

“I think that the concerns about the debt service, I agree with completely … The council and the next mayor will decide what the priorities are. The council and the next mayor could choose to bond the money for this purpose. It doesn’t mean they have to,” Stycos said.

He added: “I think it’s extremely important to the future of the planet and the future of our city.”

Donegan agreed to the continuation but used strong terms in urging his colleagues to act.

“We need to start doing something, and with all due respect to everyone, it’s great to everyone supports the idea of it, but we’ve got to start action and not just saying we support it. I mean at some point, saying you support it, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is and start doing something about it,” he said. “If we don’t start doing something now, we’re going to be paying for a lot worse years from now due to the ramifications of climate change.”

The proposal from Stycos and Donegan did draw support from a pair of public speakers during the meeting.

“I think that Rhode Island has the means to take progressive action and to go green, and especially Cranston,” city resident Susanna Yim said.

“All of our towns are connected and we all need to be doing everything we can at the state, local and federal level” to fight climate change, Providence resident Michael Kearney said.

Sick pay proposal continued

Another proposal from Stycos and Donegan aimed at providing up to five paid sick days for all city employees who do not currently enjoy that benefit was also continued until the Finance Committee’s June meeting.

The proposal would cover all part-time and full-time workers, excluding Cranston Public Library and Cranston Public School employees who are not overseen by the city administration. Stycos said it would provide workers with the equivalent of a full week’s work in sick time each year – meaning that at part-time employee who works 10 hours a week would receive 10 hours of sick time.

According to the language of the proposed ordinance, the sick time would cover medical and physical health needs for employees and their family members. It also includes provisions related to public health emergencies and those who have experienced, or who have a family member who has experienced, domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

Donegan said the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need to ensure all workers have access to paid sick time.

“I think we all, especially during these times, recognize the importance of not having to go work if you’re sick … No one should have to make the choice between going to work or missing out on a paycheck,” he said.

Daniel Parrillo, Mayor Allan Fung’s director of administration, said the administration does not support the proposal because of fears it would provide a benefit to part-time employees that goes “above and beyond” what some full-time employees receive. Strom also said that part-time workers understand they will not receive benefits when they are hired, and argued paid sick time is “not something that should be applicable to part-time people.”

Favicchio added: “We don’t know how many people it affects. We don’t know what the cause is. I don’t think there’s enough evidence that we frankly need it.”

Noting that employees of many city unions receive significant amounts of sick time under their contracts, Stycos countered:” “I think the notion that this is a broad piece of legislation that’s going to give part-timers more than full-timers is frankly ridiculous.”

He added: “This is nothing extravagant. It is a bare minimum … I think we need to kind of rein in the rhetoric and talk about the actual proposal.”

Prior to the continuation vote, Hopkins said he would prefer the proposal be considered as part of the regular budget process.

“I think we’re rushing into this,” he said.

Elsewhere during Monday’s meeting:

* The Finance Committee unanimously approved an ordinance that waives all penalties, interest and late fees for late fourth-quarter tax and sewer payments. The measure is designed to provide relief for those experiencing hardship by the pandemic. Fung previously extended the fourth-quarter payment deadline from April 15 to May 15.

“The intent here is, we all know how much many of the people in our community are suffering, and this is just to give them some peace of mind that if they’re unable to pay their fourth-quarter city tax or fees on time, that they’re not going to be charged interest … It gives people a little bit of extra time,” Donegan said.

* After lengthy discussion, no action was taken on a proposed lease agreement for the city to utilize office space at 35 Sockonasset Cross Road as the new home of the engineering, building inspections and community development departments.

Those three departments, which have been housed in the Hamilton Building on Cranston Street, are being displaced due to CCAP housing a new COVID-19 testing site at the location. The lease for the Hamilton Building space had been due to expire in September, but the impending opening of the testing site hastened the need to vacate the premises.

Last week, the five-year lease agreement went before the full council as an emergency measure. It required a two-thirds majority to pass and failed on a 5-3-1 vote, with Farina abstaining to a family member’s employment with the property owner.

The agreement had also been placed on the March Finance Committee meeting, which was canceled due to the current crisis. As a result, there was an unusual procedural situation – a proposal that previously failed before the full council appearing on a committee meeting’s docket.

On the advice of legal counsel, no action was taken Monday. But it appears the lease may soon be introduced in a new form – likely as a three-year agreement with a set of one-year extensions – after Stycos, one of the “no” votes last week, said many of his concerns and questions had been addressed through subsequent discussions with city and school officials.

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