Just over two months removed from a financial crisis that nearly claimed school sports and after school activities as a casualty of budgetary anemia, talk regarding possibly building a new high school must be giving a few people in the city whiplash.
Indeed, millions of dollars in cuts that had to be made to balance the school budget remain unfunded, and with millions more in staff raises due to be paid in the next year, that pain isn’t likely to just up and vanish. So, proposing the concept of a new school – which we can just assume will cost at least in the range of East Providence’s new school, around $190 million – must seem a little unrealistic.
One big thing to keep in mind is that capital spending through bonds is completely separate from the day-to-day spending of the school department and city budgets. Paying off bond funding can be stretched out over decades, with minimal payments occurring each year lessened by prior debt coming off the books.
Marcum LLP, in an assessment of the city’s long-term indebtedness through bonds that was discussed last night at city hall, found the city to be in a financially healthy place with a “green” rating, indicating there could be room for more borrowing – but to what extent, we can’t say for certain at this time. Similarly, however, the city upholding its AA bond rating from Standard & Poor’s seems to indicate that lenders aren’t categorizing Warwick as a financial disaster waiting to happen – at least for the time being.
While there are countless variables that go into this conversation – where would a new school be best suited to be built; should it include all high school students; what happens to the schools that are no longer needed – one thing is resoundingly clear. If there is to be a true, concerted effort at assessing the feasibility of a new school building, there can be no halfhearted attempt.
The school department must have the support of the city to pursue this route, as the costs associated with analyzing the various scenarios and getting together a comprehensive plan to submit to RIDE in time for their deadlines are going to cost real time and money to pull off. These decisions will have implications on existing bond projects and projects that are slated to begin in the coming months.
The city has accused the school department of being frivolous with money in the past, but the city will have to bear responsibility if they sit on their hands and do not contribute to coming up with and agreeing to a plan for a new school building in time for decisions to be made regarding repairs to existing facilities. For example, if they release bond funding for repairs to Pilgrim’s HVAC system, only to decide last minute a new school should be built on the site of Pilgrim, that redundancy would be theirs to claim.
It is refreshing to see the municipal government excited about the possibility of such an investment into the school department. But it will be less refreshing to see such interest go nowhere if it cannot be accomplished given the short time windows that exist. Even if a new school bond doesn’t get approved in time for the 2020 ballot, this is an area that should continue to be pursued moving forward.