EAST PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island School Building Task Force, co-chaired by General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Education Commissioner Ken Wagner, reported out its findings last week, offering up recommendations that would directly affect the on-going effort in city to construct a new East Providence High School as well as repairs needed at other buildings throughout the district.
The school committee recently approved schematics to replace the 65-year-old high school likely at a cost of between $110 and $120 million. An ongoing dialogue between the school committee and city council is considering how East Providence would approach funding its share, specifically the size of the bond it would potentially present to voters in a referenda item on the November 2018 election ballot. The current state reimbursement formula would call for the city to pay approximately 45 percent of those costs up front. However, that could change if task force proposals are initiated by Governor Gina Raimondo, the General Assembly and Rhode Island voters.
The task force’s study had three stated goals: 1. All schools will be warm, safe and dry; 2. All schools will have 21st century learning environments; and 3. Every school district will see meaningful improvements to the condition of its public school buildings.
In an accompanying press release, Mr. Magaziner said, “Every child deserves to go to a school that is warm, safe, dry and equipped for 21st century learning, but too many of our public school buildings are failing. 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."
The results led to the following recommendations: A referendum to the voters on the 2018 ballot for authorization to issue $250 million of General Obligation bonds for public school construction and repair over a five-year period, with no more than $100 million to be issued in any one year; A referendum on the 2022 ballot for authorization to issue $250 million of General Obligation bonds for public school construction and repair over a five-year period, with no more than $100 million to be issued in any one year; Ensure the School Building Authority Capital Fund has adequate funding to meet the state share for fast-track emergency repairs to school facilities targeted towards lower-income/highest need districts; Fund a portion of the state’s share for all housing aid projects on a “pay as you go” basis rather than a reimbursement basis. This will allow municipalities and the state to avoid unnecessary interest expense associated with municipal bonding.
"This isn't just about making bold investments; it's about making smart investments, and this report is an important step forward in a long-term process that will help our students succeed," Mr. Wagner was quoted in the release. "We appreciate the feedback we've heard from the Task Force members and from students, educators, and families across the state, and the report is reflective of the collective vision we share in which all students have access to 21st century learning environments."
The report found over 50,000 deficiencies, many of them severe in nature, across Rhode Island’s 306 public schools valued at $2.2 billion. These deficiencies range from direct threats to the health and safety of children, including the presence of hazardous materials and inadequate fire suppression systems, to programmatic deficiencies such as a lack of adequate science labs that speak directly to the ability of the state to prepare our students to be successful in the modern economy.
At today’s level of spending on school repairs, the total needs of school buildings state-wide are projected to grow to $2.9 billion over 10 years, meaning that the cost of repairing Rhode Island’s school buildings will increase an average of $70 million per year in the absence of new action.
Additionally, the Task Force recommended introducing new statewide requirements to ensure that buildings are properly maintained after they are repaired, and a series of new policies to limit construction cost overruns.
Included in the press release as well, the final recommendations of the Rhode Island School Building Task Force were approved unanimously by the 15 members present at their December 13 meeting, with one abstention. House Finance Committee Chairman and Task Force member Marvin Abney had previously informed the group that he would abstain from the final vote out of deference to his committee's responsibility to consider the bonds in the upcoming legislative session.
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