Johnston School Building Committee swells as first scoop of earth looms

By RORY SCHULER

The committee’s much bigger now. The plans are more detailed.

And Johnston’s nearing the late stages of design and planning for the town’s new huge elementary school and renovated high school.

“As your leadership team that we work with all the time can tell you, there’s been a lot of designing and redesigning, and tweaking and squeezing, and working with the site, particularly up the hill to the elementary school,” Cathie Ellithorpe, Principal of the SLAM Collaborative, told the Johnston School Building Committee Tuesday night. “There’s wetlands. There’s grade change to take care of. It’s a challenge, but it’s one that we’ve embraced. We’re planning a nice little gem at the top of the hill.”

Mark Rhoades, another Principal at the SLAM Collaborative — an “architecture firm with integrated construction services, landscape architecture, structural and civil engineering, and interior design” capabilities — told the expanded committee that the pending construction projects will help Johnston “stop the brain drain .”

“The next step is obtaining permits for the sites and the building with the target of late spring to begin construction on the new building,” Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. said in early October.

Johnston’s massive school renovation and new construction project will likely begin by spring. In late September the Rhode Island Health and Educational Building Corporation (RIHEBC) closed on an $85 million bond issue for the town of Johnston; funding to cover Phase 1 of Johnston’s school capital improvement plan.

“This $85 million bond issue was sold to investors at a premium of $8.5 million, generating a total of $93.5 million to pay for Phase 1 of Johnston’s school facility improvement plan,” said Kim Mooers, Executive Director of RIHEBC. “The 30-year bond has an all-in cost to borrow of 4.63 percent.”

“The architects are currently working on the Phase III submission which substantially moves the design ideas forward,” DiLullo said after the bond closed. “They are proceeding with design adjustments as the building industry continues to be in a variable state.”

Voters overwhelmingly approved a $215 million school bond issue in early April.

With a Tax Stabilization Agreement now in place with Amazon, the town is expecting millions more in annual tax revenue over the next 20 years. School officials have argued the time is right for a series of new school building projects. High state reimbursements for school building projects are also serving as a key motivator. School officials hope the state may cover close to half of the anticipated total $215 million price tag.

The district hopes to build a new Early Childhood Center, a new Elementary School for all students in grades 1-4, and make major renovations at the Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School and Johnston High School.

On Tuesday night, the School Building Committee received updates on just the new elementary school and renovations to the high school.

The new Johnston Early Childhood Center (ECC) is expected to be built on the current site of the Sarah E. Barnes Elementary School, for approximately 359 pre-K through Kindergarten students, and cost an estimated $28,600,000 (tentatively slated to open in the summer of 2024).

The school building proposal calls for closing, and then demolishing or selling the town’s current elementary schools. Each of those school’s principals has been added to the district’s School Building Committee, to offer their input during the final design phase.

Barnes Elementary School will likely be demolished to build the new Early Childhood Center. The district plans to vacate the Graniteville ECC Annex, Brown Avenue, Thornton and Winsor Hill elementary schools. The aging buildings may be repurposed, sold by the town or demolished.

The large consolidated, new elementary school was initially pitched to be built for approximately 1,100 students in grades 1-4.

On Tuesday night, however, Ellithorpe and Rhoades told the Building Committee that the new school will be designed to educate around 1,000 students, and that the number is tied to strict funding formulas set by the state.

Some committee members expressed concern that students may return to the district after the facilities overhaul, leaving the district forced to fund another expansion down the road.

“I see us doing this and in five hears we have to put on an addition,” said Town Council member and new Building Committee member Robert Civetti.

The plans call for building the new Johnston Elementary School on town property just north of the Johnston High School. The land consists of difficult terrain; and true to the neighborhood’s “Graniteville” nickname, the soil is full of rock formations.

Ellithorpe and Rhoades said the soil also contains levels of arsenic that may present a problem, based on Rhode Island’s strict soil contaminant regulations.

“If you put it in Connecticut, I could eat it,” Rhoades told the committee, referring to the site’s soil.

According to early proposals, the elementary school will cost an estimated $84,350,000, and is tentatively scheduled to open in late summer 2024. Building material costs, across the world, have been surging since the start of the pandemic, however.

A pending three-town consolidated animal shelter — for Johnston, Smithfield and North Providence — for example, has experienced an upswing in construction costs of approximately 20 percent, according to Mayor Joseph M. Polisena.

The district had planned to the new ECC and elementary school first, and then move on to the high school renovation, and lastly, the middle school project, DiLullo said last year.

On Tuesday night, though, the new elementary school and the high school renovations have been moved to the top of the priority list.

The SLAM Collaborative, the firm hired by the school district, has proposed more than $39 million in renovations to the Ferri Middle School and a $57 million facelift at the high school.

At the high school, planners have been trying to maximize parking, update locker room facilities, and revitalize the underutilized outdoor courtyard in the center of the current 50-year-old building.

The town hopes to open the new middle school in late summer of 2025, and the modernized high school in late summer of 2024.

The middle school was to be built to accommodate 1,066 students in grades 5-8, and the high school was initially planned to educate approximately 799 students in grades 9-12. The original plans call for new heating, air conditioning, ventilation, science labs and more at both schools. Final upgrades, however, are still being discussed.

Last year, DiLullo said the current early childhood center, attached to the middle school, will eventually become a fifth grade academy, for the district’s transitional-age students.

The town’s new School Building Committee includes the following town officials: Joseph W. Rotella (Chairman), Robert A. LaFazia (Vice-Chairman), Louis Alviano, Francis Cerullo, Robert Civetti, Linda Folcarelli, Doug Jeffrey, Bethany Littlefield, Stephen Mandarelli , Susan Mansolillo, Mayor-elect Joseph Polisena Jr., Lesli-Ann Powell, Mike Rozzero, Carolyn Thornton-Iannuccilli, Ron Pezzuco and the principals of each district school.

According to the school’s legal counsel, William J. Conley Jr., the larger committee was state-funding requirement initiated by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE).

A smaller version of the committee last met in August, when SLAM representatives delivered design updates on the elementary and high school projects, like they did Tuesday evening.

According to the meeting’s minutes, the “Team discussed some structural footprint changes for these buildings that will reduce overall costs but still provide all of the areas necessary to address population needs.”


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