By Tim Forsberg

Forum highlights statewide effort to fix RI schools

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In an effort to prepare for a “once in a generation” investment in education and school infrastructure to repair and replace the state’s aging facilities, Governor Gina Raimondo and her administration have embarked on a listening tour to gather community feedback as to how to proceed.

“I don’t know what all the answers are, but I do know our kids deserve warm, safe, dry and modern schools. Our teachers deserve that,” said Gov. Raimondo. “We can put a whole lot of people to work rebuilding, and let’s work together and find a solution.”

Last Thursday in a forum held at the Johnston High School auditorium and hosted by Mayor Joseph Polisena, Gov. Raimondo, Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Commissioner of Education Dr. Ken Wagner met with nearly 100 members of the public to address concerns following the release of the Jacob’s Report. That report showed that, in order to bring the state’s schools up to 21st Century educational standards, nearly $2.2 billion would be needed to repair and replace schools throughout the state.

The forum was the second hour-long informational session held to address the schoolhouse report, and followed a similar meeting held in Newport about two weeks ago. Additional forums are expected to take place around the state before the end of the year, and all forums are open to the public regardless of where the forum is held.

“This is something that probably should have been done 50 years ago,” said Mayor Polisena. “But thank goodness that the governor and our treasurer decided to do something about it. They’re the only ones that have really took the bull by the horns.”

According to the findings of recently released report, Warwick’s 21 schools, which serve 9,009 students, would require approximately $190,018,965 to bring the district to a “good condition.” Warwick has a Facility Condition Index (FCI) score of 44.8 percent, meaning the buildings in this district are in poor condition. Buildings in good condition score between 6 and 10 percent.

Warwick’s highest facility deficiency cost is at Pilgrim High School, which would cost $36,168,868 to bring into good condition. Deficiencies identified at the high school include the need for schoolwide fire sprinklers and corroded piping systems.

“We’ve been putting off this problem for too long and it’s time to do something about it. It’s time to act big and if we are going to make a once in a lifetime investment in our public school buildings, we need to make sure we get it right. And that’s why were doing this,” said Treasurer Magaziner.

“The longer we wait to do something about this the more expensive it’s going to be to fix. So we have to just go ahead and pull the band-aid off and do something big to repair and upgrade these school buildings so that these kids are safe, so that these kids get the kind of training that they need in a facility that will help them be successful,” he added.

As there are no current specific proposals to solve the state’s school building problems, and the school building task force continues to investigate possible solutions, the governor’s office sees these presentations as generating conversations and engaging the community to discover what needs are apparent. The goal is to bring attention to the problem and to build a public consensus that something needs to be done.

School construction has typically been a shared responsibility between the state and local communities. This has been demonstrated through a statutory reimbursement schedule based on a community’s ability to pay. For every school construction project, the state pays a certain percentage, ranging from 30 to 96 percent. According to the forum, the average is ratio of spending between cities and towns and the state is about 50-50.

The average age of the state’s school facilities is approximately 60 years old. Some were constructed around 1900, while others are brand new.

“We have a problem and we have got to fix it. Most of Rhode Island’s school buildings were built in the 50s and 60s, so they’re falling apart. They were all built before computers, before Wi-Fi, most high schools don’t really have labs,” said Raimondo. “At least not labs that we would think of to teach science today. So the thing is it’s a big problem, it’s in every single city and town, it’s not just urban, it’s not just suburban.”

In the 70s and 80s, Rhode Island issued general obligation bonds every two years for school construction, which would have various ranges in terms of financing. The last time the state bonded was 1994. For the five years prior to Gov. Raimondo taking office, there was a moratorium on school construction projects in which the state removed itself from school construction projects while only continuing emergency repairs as necessary.

During that time, most communities stopped constructing new schools. Once Raimondo lifted the moratorium, the state provided funding and a second financing vehicle was constructed to help pay for expenses. While the majority of school construction projects go through a local bonding approval process, where the municipality borrows 100 percent of the cost of the project and, as that debt is being repaid over a given term, the state pays its share during the reimbursement schedule.

While this approach works for municipalities that have good borrowing capacity, it does not work for communities that do not have that availability. In the 2016 fiscal budget, a school building capital fund was created and seeded with $20 million, with an additional approximately $10 million added every year since which works as an up front, pay as you go funding source for the highest priority needs.

Commissioner Wagner explained that the state is currently investing about $80 million a year into facilities, but stated that number is insufficient.

“This isn’t just about infrastructure, but the current state of our school facilities absolutely is having an impact not only on the outcomes that we’re getting out of our schools, but also the morale of our students and our teachers being in our schools,” said Wagner. “So we can’t just treat this as an infrastructure investment, this is also an investment in our kids, in our workforce to not only make them more productive but more engaged in what their doing.”

Wagner focused on two numbers in a high level overview during the forum. The first is what dollar amount it will take to ensure all students are warm, safe and dry. This Wagner considered a “bare minimum requirement,” which would require $630 million.

To bring buildings up to a 21st Century standard, that number rises to $2.2 billion, where schools would reach an “ideal standard.”

“I will caution, that is if we spend the money today, because every day that we wait, every year that we wait, those numbers go up,” he said.

The state has streamlined the application process for school construction projects. Previously, applications were approved in a first come, first served basis, until the allotted money for a given year was spent. Currently, there is an annual process that allows all communities to file applications on the same schedule, which allows the state to establish priorities, as recommended by the Jacobs report. However, state aid is not provided until the applying community has its share of funding in place.

Another component reached after the moratorium was a call for the state to have an independent analysis of the conditions of school facilities. Previous to that, the state was reliant on what information each individual community provided based on face value, as there was no statewide survey.

According to the forum, the State of Rhode Island’s Shoolhouses report is the first comprehensive assessment of its type. For the report, the state had teams of architects and engineers and others who worked with area facilities managers to complete the assessment of the 306 public schools.

Jacobs identified needs based on a 1-5 priority level, where a 1 and 2 classification represents repairs, which are most urgent, such as roofs and heating systems, items that will keep children warm, safe and dry. Priorities 3-5 are not urgent projects, such as facility exteriors, which may turn to urgent priorities should they continue to be neglected. Work is already underway to address some of these priorities.

Currently, priority one and two projects hold a price tag of approximately $600 million-worth of projects, with a total of $2.2 billion to complete all projects listed in the report. The state believes that they have to start somewhere, for if they don’t the cost of repairs will continue to escalate.

All findings are available online at the Rhode Island Department of Education Website, and updated regularly to address additional findings, or reflect any repairs that have happened since their school visits began last spring, should they arise.

Newer and fewer?

It will be up to communities to determine whether to refurbish or replace. If the cost of renovating a school is 65 percent of what it would take to completely rebuild, the state would recommend new construction. Under the Jacob’s Report standards, all but 18 of the state’s schools have a path for renovation. Most communities are expected to complete renovations rather than building new.

Another conclusion reached through the Jacob’s report is that it appears that there are too many small schools in terms of square footage. These schools, it was discovered, have been using conference rooms and even closets and have turned them into instructional spaces, as they need more room.

The state’s recommendation, as concluded by the Jacob’s report, going forward is to strive for “newer and fewer” schools. Many districts are showing declining enrollments, while others are seeing a spike in enrollments.

However, the state does not foresee the state mandating that communities need to close schools, and those decisions will remain a city and town choice. The state however, may incentivize community-led preservation efforts of their school buildings to ensure that they won’t fall back into disrepair.

Raimondo said her plan is to provide a proposal to the General Assembly at the end of January when the next budget is submitted, which she hopes will be passed. A bond initiative would then be presented to voters next November and, if that is approved, major work will begin. A ten-year projected timeline for work completion is anticipated.

Johnston High School Principal Dennis Morrell, who spoke during the forum, gave an overview of what he would like to see should financing for improvements become available.

“We have a growing population of students with special needs, and we have students that aren’t able to access all parts of our building,” he said. “A lot of our buildings are retro-fitted to meet the needs, it’s not the ideal situation to get these children around. I think that’s what I would like to see as a teacher with an administrative point of view.”

Superintendent of Johnston Schools, Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. also spoke during the event. He focused on the district’s elementary schools, and explained that the town would like to explore the option of building a new elementary campus rather than renovating existing facilities because of their age.

“Our vision, or our hope or our dream is to have a centralized elementary school in one location to have all of our students there, possibly in different pods, but primarily to design a school to meet the needs of 21st century students,” he said.

Mayor Polisena also reiterated that the time to repair and replace is now, and the longer the district and the state waits, the more difficult change will be.

“This needs to be done, there’s no doubt about it, we have to make sure that our children have a safe place to learn as well as for our teachers,” he said. “Our educators work very, very hard to educate our students and we have to make sure that they have a safe place and a nurturing place.”

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