Let’s not be Warwick

At North Kingstown’s October 12 public forum on the Megabond, former State Senator James Sheehan (D & NK resident) spoke in favor of the new middle school project and cited Warwick as an example of building new schools to retain and attract more students. During another part of the meeting, the term “value engineering” was used by representatives from Perkins Eastman.

Ironically, exactly one day later an article (“The Cost of Warwick’s School Projects May Go Up By Millions. Should It Go Back to Voters?”) appeared in The Providence Journal describing what a logistical and financial nightmare Warwick’s school projects have become. All of this because of failures to research and plan, just like we are seeing in North Kingstown right now with regard to the middle school project. And lo and behold the term “value engineering” appeared again. As you read segments of the article below, bear in mind that all we have as of this moment for the middle school are highly aspirational conceptual renderings – no blueprints, no firm estimate of costs. Hell, not even a definite site.

And note that Johnston and Newport are both also WAY OVER BUDGET.

The piece was authored by Jim Hummel, of the well-known and highly respected Hummel Report.

A longtime government watchdog is questioning whether city officials should go back to voters who last year approved borrowing $350 million to build two new high schools, saying the cost and the scope of the projects has changed significantly without their assent. 

Rob Cote, a familiar face at City Council and School Committee meetings, said the city presented voters a package that no longer exists: Costs have increased by millions and the city is considering extending by a decade the payback period for the bond, which would increase borrowing costs by tens of millions.  

To stay at the $350-million price tag, Cote says, amenities at the two schools have been cut back using a term that planners call “value engineering.” 

“That’s not what you sold the general public and that’s not what you put on the bond referendum and what was in the voter referendum handbook,” said Cote, who has been a structural inspector of record for more than three dozen school construction projects in New England. “You’re making a portrayal to the public that’s inaccurate.” 

… It’s a dilemma that other districts – eager to take advantage of expiring reimbursement incentives from the state – are facing. All communities pursuing school construction projects face unexpectedly higher interest rates now that the proposals have moved from the planning to construction phase. Cranston, Cumberland and Barrington have pushed their bond payback period out to 30 years, according to a spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Education. 

… Now communities like Warwick face the double challenge of higher interest rates and dramatically higher building costs. A consultant the city hired to review the projected school costs submitted to the Department of Education confirmed what Cote had said for more than a year: the total cost would be above $380 million, including an $11.7-million “underwriting fee” for the bonds that planners originally omitted.

… Cote said taxpayers should also know that the high schools will look different from the proposal made in forums last year. To meet the $350-million cap, the square footage of each school will be reduced, an indoor walking track has been eliminated and air-conditioning canceled. Cote said the industry term for the downsizing is called value engineering.

Asked about that, [Warwick Mayor] Picozzi responded: “The initial plans and size of the school were conceptual. The School Department has stated that any reduction in size will be to common areas, not classrooms. Air conditioning has not been eliminated; there has been discussion of going with a tempered air system (versus air conditioning) for ongoing operating costs.” 

You can find the full text of Jim Hummel’s article here, or on The Hummel Report website.