2017-11-02 / Opinion

EDITORIAL

‘Warm, Safe, Dry’ a Top Priority

At this point, most of the community has probably heard the news: based on the State of Rhode Island Schoolhouses report, the legislature appropriated $4 million to cover the cost of the study which was completed by Jacobs Engineering in September after a year-long assessment.

In order to bring Rogers High School into merely adequate status, where students and teachers are “warm, safe and dry,” the school has an immediate $37.9 million need and a combined $51.4 million need over five years. For Middletown High School, the immediate need is $13.5 million and the combined five-year need is $18.5 million. The state needs $2.2 billion total, according to the report, to bring all of its K-12 school buildings into “ideal condition.” That’s a lot of money.

Thankfully, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo says she is committed to investing more money in the state’s public school facilities, but the question still on everyone’s mind is: who’s going to pay for it?

Even if the state allocates more funding to public schools, that will likely still fall back onto us, the taxpayers. But if you’ve been to Rogers, which was built in 1957, you’ll probably agree that it needs a lot of TLC. The 60-year-old facility is rapidly deteriorating. According to the school report, water is leaking through the roof into the gym, paint is peeling off the walls in places and some of the doors and lighting fixtures need to be replaced.

At Middletown High, the Jacobs report pointed to leaking windows and mechanical deficiencies, along with aged and cracking sidewalks as shortfalls that require attention. Walking down the halls at these schools feels a bit like stepping back in time. It’s clear that these campuses needs upgrades.

Raimondo formed a task force to hold community listening forums at four locations around Rhode Island. At the first such forum, held at Rogers High with Raimondo, Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Education Commissioner Ken Wagner, several attendees brought up the “elephant in the room.” Instead of sinking more money into the current campus and putting Band- Aids on big problems, perhaps the school should be entirely rebuilt. Should it be moved closer to the district’s two other schools in order to keep all the resources in one place? And, if we upgrade and/or rebuild the school, how we will make sure this doesn’t happen again?

There’s no easy answer to these questions because district budgets get trimmed every year and oftentimes the maintenance line item is one of the first to be slashed, which means upkeep is often deferred. Compared to teachers’ salaries, pension and healthcare benefits, it may not seem so important to update technology and funding for new programming, and maintain school facilities. But think of it this way: If the school isn’t warm, safe and dry, how can teachers do their jobs and prepare our high school students for the 21st-century workplace? How will updated technology and new programming help our students when the school facility itself is lacking in so many ways?

If and when Rogers or Middletown are upgraded or rebuilt, maintenance and upkeep needs to be a top priority so taxpayers aren’t put in this position again. Instead of being reactive, we need to be proactive. It’s just like a home or a road or any kind of infrastructure. If it’s not maintained, the cost to fix it later just increases until it’s almost unmanageable. But if we’re going to invest in anything, it should be our children. They are the future and deserve to learn in high-quality school facilities where they are warm, safe and dry.

During budget discussions, we hope Newport and Middletown school committees and administrators agree to begin these discussions much earlier, and stick to a commitment that school facility maintenance is a priority in the upcoming budget. We can’t afford for it not to be.

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