The unfortunate reality of fixing our schools
The release of the long-awaited Jacobs Report, an independent third party study of the condition of every school district in Rhode Island sanctioned by the Department of Education, confirmed what everyone already knew – the state’s schools are in sorry condition.
Statewide, the problem seems insurmountable. In total, around $2.2 billion is estimated to be the amount needed to get all the state’s schools up to modern standards for safety and learning efficiency. Facing such a huge figure renders the writing on the wall pretty clear that the taxpayers of Rhode Island will be asked to shoulder a significant portion of the rebuilding burden.
If the taxpayers are asked to pony up more money to fix a problem caused by decades of mismanagement and ignoring the needs for crucial repairs to schools, then government officials – both in local town and city halls and at the State House – will need to step up to the plate and craft a reimbursement program that encourages communities to address these problems now, and then maintain the buildings afterwards.
This is, of course, easier said than done, especially considering the state is facing a $237 million deficit next fiscal year and actual state revenues for the first month of FY17 have come in $11 million short of their projections. In the absence of help federally (don’t hold your breath), we seem to be on our own.
Perhaps, then, the issue should be framed and tackled from a community-by-community basis. In Warwick, the Jacobs Report estimates that there are about $190 million in deficiencies between the district’s 21 schools. To completely replace all schools with new construction would cost approximately $534 million.
Obviously, Warwick will not be tearing down its schools and starting from the ground up, and no municipality can take on such significant debt to try to address all these problems at once. The only real solution is to turn to bonds to address these issues step-by-step, starting with the most pressing problems first.
For example, Vets is in the last stages of an $8.6 million renovation project, paid for by a bond, which completely replaced the HVAC system and made crucial changes to the school’s electrical system, which now enables them to utilize the new tools that are becoming the standard in modern classrooms. The renovations have been performed on time and, by the time they are done, Vets will be a project that sets an example for the kind of work that is possible and necessary district-wide.
The school department hopes that the Jacobs Report reinforces what they have told the Warwick School Committee already – that the schools need serious fixes and they need them now – and will prompt the school committee, city council and the state legislature to approve an $85 million bond request so that it may hopefully appear on a ballot for residents to vote on next November.
While $85 million will obviously only put a dent into the overall expense, it is at least the start towards a better educational future for children in Warwick. The fact that many buildings still have unabated asbestos and nonfunctional air conditioning should be an unpleasant reality shock for anyone who perhaps thought the issues with local schools weren’t all they were reported to be.
Nobody wants to take on more debt. Nobody wants to pay more taxes. People without any kids will cry victim because they don’t care about or need better schools – but this is the unfortunate reality in which we find ourselves. Our kids deserve better than what they have, and more simply they need better in order to keep pace with the racing advances being made in the educational environment.
The tired cliché holds true. Children are our future. And they will be left with the future we give them, equipped only to handle it with the tools and preparation that we provide them. It is long past due for us to address these challenges and give them the best chance to succeed.