2017-10-26 / Front Page

$2.2 Billion Required for 'Ideal' Schools

By Brooke Constance White

A recent study commissioned by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), reports that the state would need $2.2 billion to bring its public schools into “ideal condition.” But even getting them into acceptable condition, which the study says includes basic shelter to allow students and teachers to be “warm, safe and dry,” would cost $627.6 million.

In Newport, the immediate need at Rogers High School alone is $37.9 million and its combined need over five years is $51.4 million, according to the Jacobs Engineering study, known as the State of Rhode Island Schoolhouses Report.

The numbers appear staggering. Newport This Week wondered how we got here and why the state’s school facilities need so much work. Gov. Gina Raimondo’s press secretary, David Ortiz, and deputy press secretary, Catherine Rolfe, recently sat down with NTW staff to give a broad overview of the report and provide some historical context.

Many facility issues in Newport and throughout the state stem from deferred maintenance along with a four-year building moratorium imposed on state-financed school construction and put in place in 2011, three years after the Great Recession hit and unemployment in Rhode Island skyrocketed.

In 2015, Raimondo took office and lifted the moratorium. Since then, $80 million has been set aside each year for school construction projects. But the moratorium, coupled with the fact that Rhode Island stopped bonding for school construction in the 1990s just as many of its schools built in the 1950s and ‘60s were reaching their 30-year shelf life, has left the state with dozens of under-maintained educational facilities.

Last year, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved legislation that directed RIDE to commission the study in order to thoroughly examine the state’s 300-plus K-12 school buildings. Until then, all schools had been self-reporting the status of their facilities.

The numbers in the report are specific and could be daunting for some, according to Ortiz, but he clarified that no legislation or budgetary request has been made at this time. Although the $627.6 million figure would make sure that all schools in the state are “warm, safe and dry” and represent real needs, the $2.2 billion figure is simply aspirational and would bring all buildings to an “ideal condition,” which would include technology and aesthetic enhancements to make the schools the best they could be.

“What the governor has said is that we need to make an investment in our schools; we need to spend more and be smarter about it,” Ortiz said. “Our school infrastructure is in such a state that if we continue on with the current investment, it won’t improve the overall conditions.”

According to the Jacobs report, which was completed in September, every district in the state has priority one and priority two issues that impact their ability to remain open and deliver an effective educational curriculum.

At Rogers, which was built in 1957, deficiencies outlined in the report include uneven concrete walkways throughout the campus exterior, pre-1978 base-layer paint that’s peeling in places, and classrooms with insufficient electrical outlets. Additionally, many of the doors and lighting fixtures require replacing along with numerous mechanical systems.

As NTW reported on Oct. 19, Raimondo and her Rhode Island School Building Task Force gathered at Rogers on Oct. 12 to hold the first of four listening forums throughout the state, aimed at explaining the report to constituents and hearing from community members. The task force primarily listened to comments from approximately 80 attendees who expressed opinions about how the state should move forward to address the school-building deficiencies throughout Rhode Island.

Once Raimondo, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner and Treasurer Seth Magaziner complete the four forums, the task force will make recommendations to the governor by December.

Those recommendations could include incentivizing projects that fall in line with the top priorities set forth in the report, requiring districts to have designated funds for maintenance, according to Ortiz. Another potential recommendation, he added, could be hiring more companies owned by women and minorities to update school facilities. After the task force passes along their recommendations, Ortiz said the governor will likely come up with a budget request and legislation in January based on the recommendations.

“Ideally,” he said, “it would pass in June and the beefed-up level of investment in our schools would begin in the summer.”

One complication swirling around this issue is determining how to responsibly invest in the state’s schools, Ortiz said. At the moment, state leaders don’t know where the funding will come from but said it will likely involve bonding, he added. Many states look to Massachusetts as an example of how to fund big investments such as schools, and while Ortiz said Rhode Island will likely emulate 90 percent of what Massachusetts has done, Raimondo has said she doesn’t want to fund school improvements through existing revenue streams.

“We know that we can’t just spend more money,” Ortiz said. “We need to be smarter and right now we don’t know what that looks like but that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Change will not come immediately, and it may be years before the state’s school facilities are all “warm, safe and dry,” but Ortiz said the governor is committed to making a generational investment in Rhode Island’s public schools.

“Just like with any kind of infrastructure, the longer we wait the more it will cost,” Ortiz said. “We really have to be smarter because we don’t want to maintain the status quo; we want to actually move the needle.”

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