2018-01-18 / Front Page

State Recommends Bonds for School Construction

By Brooke Constance White

Last October, a Rhode Island Department of Education task force under Gov. Gina Raimondo declared that the state’s public schools are in need of $2.2 billion in upgrades to bring facilities into “ideal’ condition. Last month, the group compiled feedback from meetings it had across the state, and made an announcement.

The task force recommended that $500 million in state bonds be issued for public school construction and repair over the next 10 years. Locally, Newport School District administrators are hopeful that potential funding from the state could be leveraged through two local bonds of $250m each to replace the aging Rogers High School campus and expand Pell Elementary.

After learning that the task force recommended the two bonds be proposed to voters in a state referendum in 2018 with a second round in 2022, Newport School Committee Chairman David Hanos said the NSC hopes by May to apply for funding and to get a local bond on the general election ballot next November to supplement state funding.

“It’s a tight timeframe and we understand that it may or may not happen but we’re going to try our best,” Hanos said. “It feels like the timing is right with our schools' needs and the bond for Thompson’s reconstruction will be paid off in 2021. If we could expand Pell somehow and build a new high school, aside from regular maintenance, our school buildings would be all set for the foreseeable future.”

Raimondo convened the 19-member task force last October after a RIDE-commissioned study known as the State of Rhode Island Schoolhouses report declared the state would need $2.2 billion to bring its public schools into “ideal condition.” Even bringing 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.

Based on the report completed by Jacobs Engineering in September after a yearlong assessment, the immediate need at Rogers High, which was built in 1957, is $37.9 million and its combined need over five years is $51.4 million. The report put the replacement value of Rogers at $73.8 million and determined a “facility condition index” of 69.7 percent by dividing the five-year need by the total replacement cost.

Of all the high schools in the state, no high school has an index as high as Rogers. If the facility condition index is greater than 65 percent, the state has determined that the school is a candidate for replacement. According to Hanos, the state indicated that they would not put much money into a school like Rogers that needs so much work.

“I don’t think the question is are we going to build a new school,” Hanos said. “I think it’s pretty obvious, and anyone with fiscal responsibility would say it’s much smarter to build a new school rather than trying to improve the one we have. The real question is, where are we going to build a new school?”

Superintendent Colleen Jermain agreed that Rogers should be a high priority as student population increases and the administration sees growing interest in the career and technical program.

“We need to make significant changes and improvements to get it up to today’s standards,” Jermain said. “Based on the report about Rogers from the state, there’s so much that’s needed that it would be more cost effective to build a new high school.”

The task force also recommended introducing statewide requirements to ensure that buildings are properly maintained after they are repaired, and a series of new policies to limit construction cost overruns. For example, the task force said that minimum annual spending for building maintenance must be at least 3 percent of the replacement value of the school in accordance with national best practices. It also suggested raising the threshold of maintenance spending that could trigger a loss of state aid from 50 percent three years in a row to 66.7 percent over the same time period.

The goal of these recommendations is to ensure that within a decade, all public school facilities in the state are safe, warm and dry, and offer students 21st-century learning environments. Further, the task force hopes that within 10 years, each district will have made meaningful improvements to the condition of its public school buildings.

“Too many of our public school buildings are failing,” state Treasurer and task-force co-chair Seth Magaziner said in a Dec. 14 statement. “We cannot afford to wait any longer to take action, so this group has developed a plan to do right by our children by repairing our school buildings all across the state.”

Additionally, the task force recommended that specific projects meeting these goals be incentivized through a system of “bonuses” to the state share formula, which is the rate at which the state reimburses school districts for facility construction. Each “bonus point” up to 20 will represent an additional 1 percent of project costs for school construction or renovation borne by the state on top of the standard state share for a district.

“This isn't just about making bold investments; it's about making smart investments,” said Education Commissioner Ken Wagner in the Dec. 14 statement.

The Newport School Committee rescheduled an early January community meeting at Rogers High School to discuss the idea of replacing the school to Feb. 3 at 9 a.m. Committee members plan to lead a tour of the school to show the facility’s numerous deficiencies. The committee held a community tour of the Pell School on Jan. 9, which highlighted the lack of classroom and office space.

To further these efforts, the school committee is forming two subcommittees: one for Rogers and the administration buildings and another for Pell Elementary School focusing on expansion. The committee is seeking volunteers from the general public to join. If interested, contact Cathy Nash atcathynash@npsri.net or 847-2100 x5376.

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