School projects get nod; Raimondo launches study of funding formula

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The Council on Elementary and Secondary Education last week approved school renovation projects through the School Building Authority Capital Fund, while Gov. Gina Raimondo launched a working group to review Rhode Island’s school funding formula.

Last Tuesday, the council unanimously approved the nearly $20 million through the School Building Authority Capital Fund, which was set up by Raimondo in August.

“This is a big deal,” the governor said. “This is the first step to rebuilding our schools. This is money on the streets right away, putting people to work.”

Altogether, the $19,347,079 will benefit 86 renovation projects in 18 school districts across the state. It is expected to benefit 30,000 students and their teachers.

Although 120 applications for projects were received, the 86 chosen were selected on need rather than a first-come, first-served basis.

Projects were ranked based on necessity. The “Priority 1” projects, which were all accepted, dealt with repair applications that would address health and safety concerns, including fire protection, improvements to security, heating and ventilation, as well as lighting retrofits.

The 18 districts receiving funding through the capital fund are Barrington, Bristol Warren, Burrillville, Central Falls, Cranston, East Providence, Foster, Foster-Glocester, Middletown, New Shoreham, North Providence, Pawtucket, Portsmouth, Providence, Tiverton, Woonsocket as well as Beacon and Kingston Hill, both charters.

Cranston Public Schools is receiving a total of $263,160, with $103,200 going to Rhodes Elementary for fire safety upgrades and $159,960 to Edgewood Highlands Elementary for improvements to HVAC.

Warwick did not apply for funding, as it is in the midst of completing several projects according to Anthony Ferrucci, school business affairs director.

Cranston Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse is “pleased and grateful” for the funding, and applauded Raimondo and the Department of Education for the plan to help rebuild aging facilities to better serve students.

“Here in Cranston, most of our projects are still health and safety concerns. At this point, we don’t have any cosmetic projects,” she said.

Raimondo said it is unacceptable for students go into schools with “paint peeling off the walls and ceilings falling down.” She said improving schools will not only help students know the community is invested in their education, but also create jobs in the construction industry.

“These projects will put people to work, and provide safer, healthier, better learning environments for about 30,000 students and their teachers,” Raimondo said.

“For so many Rhode Islanders, success starts in the classroom, and it is our priority to make those classrooms places where learning comes alive for kids,” Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Ken Wagner said.

“These projects say to our students and our teachers, ‘We care about you, and we care about your education.’ With the approval of and funding for these construction projects, we have put school renovation and repair on a fast track,” said Barbara S. Cottam, chair of the Board of Education.

Last Thursday, Raimondo announced that the state’s school funding formula, which was signed into law five years ago, would undergo review. She appointed a working group to do so, which will host public meetings across Rhode Island and present its initial findings and recommendations by Jan. 1, 2016.

The working group, which will be co-chaired by Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of KIDS COUNT, and Donald Sweitzer, chairman of IGT Corporation and Senior Public Affairs, includes leaders in education, legislation and business from across the state.

Currently, the education funding formula bases its financial aid to public schools based on student enrollment, student poverty level and community wealth. Although Raimondo said the state has a strong formula – one used as a model for other states – she wants the working group to explore the fairness of funding, whether or not it factors in the “unique” needs of each school and district, and what can be done to better outcomes across the board.

Burke Bryant said in a statement: “We need to be sure we are using education dollars wisely to ensure positive outcomes because our kids are depending on us.”

Similarly, Sweitzer said: “We need to do all we can to ensure our education system is strong enough to prepare our students for college and for the jobs of the 21st century.”

Raimondo said: “With this working group, we will begin to shift our conversation away from school budget line items and toward school investment. We need to shift our focus to our schools, the front lines, where the magic happens.”

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