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Zoning board OKs charter school expansion

December 5, 2011

PAWTUCKET — If there is no contamination found on the property, it looks as though the middle school for the Blackstone Valley Prep charter school will be established in a former manufacturing building located at 1135 Roosevelt Avenue.
On Monday, the Zoning Board of Appeals voted 5 to 0 to grant a special use permit to applicant Julian P. Forgue, who is the current owner of the property. The permit allows the 4-acre site, currently zoned MO Industrial Open, to be used as an elementary or secondary school. The building, which has been vacant for about five years, formerly housed the Red Farm Studios greeting card company and previously a webbing manufacturer.
At a public hearing held last Monday, proponents of the school presented plans to renovate the 59,304-square-foot industrial building into a school for grades 6, 7 and 8 that will be part of the non-profit Rhode Island Mayoral Academy. Under the proposal, the school would serve 320 students in 16 classrooms, with other rooms set aside for art, music and other purposes.
Blackstone Valley Prep, granted permission to operate as a public charter school by the state General Assembly in 2008, also operates an elementary school for grades K, 1 and 2 at 291 Broad St. in Cumberland and another school for grades 5 and 6 at 7 Fatima Drive in Cumberland. The middle school is proposed to open by the fall of 2013.
In granting the special use permit, board members placed several stipulations on the property: that the use as a school be contingent on the property successfully passing all testing for any contamination, that a buffer fence be erected between the school and houses along Columbine Avenue, and that a bus loop be created to keep school bus traffic off Roosevelt Avenue.
Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Donald McKinnon said the bus loop, in particular, should work to appease most opponents of the school by mandating that buses come in from Benefit Street to Bates Street into the parking lot and then out on Kenyon Avenue. At last week’s public hearing, several neighbors voiced concerns about the noise from school buses and other traffic and the disruption to the densely populated, residential area surrounding the building.
Prior to the vote, McKinnon said he agreed with former Planning Director Michael Cassidy’s consultants’ assessment (on behalf of the applicant) that the school would work well with the neighborhood footprint and fit well with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
Board member Raymond Gannon agreed, noting that since the property was zoned as manufacturing, a manufacturing company could potentially come in that would bring more noise and traffic than the school would. “I see this as the least harmful to the area,” he stated, just before the vote.
After the vote, several neighbors who had been opposed to the proposal told The Times that they felt better after going to visit the Blackstone Valley Prep school on Fatima Drive in Cumberland to see how it was run, and in speaking with some charter school officials.
Deborah and Stephen Laduke said they had collected about 20 names on a petition before learning that they couldn’t present it that night, since the public hearing had already been closed. They said, however, that they were impressed by the orderly way that traffic was handled at the Fatima Drive school. “It was like a boot camp,” noted Deborah Laduke. “And the kids there did not look unhappy.”
The Ladukes, who live on Columbine Avenue, said they were also pleased by assurances that there would be no outdoor lighting of the school’s athletic fields. They also said that Blackstone Valley Prep officials had promised to work cooperatively with the neighbors if any issues arose.
Two other neighbors who had been opposed, Collette Meehan and Shane Dowrie, said they also felt cautiously optimistic that the school would keep its promises to not disrupt the residential neighborhood. Meehan added that she still did not like the charter school concept, however, believing that it will take away taxpayer funding from the city’s public schools.
All four residents said, however, that they didn’t like the way the proposal had been handled by city officials, and felt that not enough notice and information was given to the people of the neighborhood in advance of last week’s public hearing.

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