There’s no way to skirt around the facts. The state of public schools in Rhode Island is a dire problem.
The Jacobs Report – a statewide, independent assessment of the repair needs, from crucial to cosmetics, of all 307 public school facilities sanctioned by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) – concluded that it would cost around $2.2 billion to get all public school buildings into “ideal” condition.
Just to address all the top priority needs – the things like roofs, fire alarms and HVAC systems and crucial building repairs like windows and doors to keep classrooms warm, dry and safe – would cost around $627.6 million. Each school district has its own blemishes, and while some are in better conditions than others, there is no shortage of needs throughout the Ocean State.
While there is a tendency to want to blame past administrations and local municipal leadership for letting the conditions of its schools get so decrepit, the time for finger-pointing is over. The only conversation that matters now is what can be done, and what steps can be taken to improve this situation.
These are the types of conversations that Governor Gina Raimondo and RIDE are starting to initiate. To their credit, the governor and her team are readily admitting to not having all the answers – something that’s not always easy to do in politics – and they are reaching out to communities for suggestions and feedback.
Raimondo, in accordance with the newly-created Rhode Island School Buildings Task Force, will be in Johnston tonight in order to have such a discussion, at a forum organized by Mayor Joe Polisena at Johnston High School.
The purpose of these conversations is to begin a dialogue with the state about what problems each community is facing, what priorities they should attend to and to begin to establish concrete plans for the future for how to maximize available resources. The task force looks to have conversations with as many communities as possible before delivering final recommendations back to Raimondo in December of this year.
The governor and her team are certain that local towns and cities need to retain control over what ultimately gets done in their districts, but they want the state to be able to play a supporting role in those decisions. Through matching funding, which is determined based on a community’s ability to pay, the state will be reimbursing a certain number of school-related projects (either renovation or new construction) per year between 30 and 96 percent.
RIDE will be reviewing the first stage of applications for major school projects, which were due earlier this month. The deadline for the next stage of application will be on Feb. 1. After that stage, RIDE will give its recommendations for which school projects deserve funding the most.
A second funding vehicle for state aid – the School Building Capital Fund – was initiated in FY16 to help supplement projects involving the most crucial needs, or “mission critical concerns.” These concerns include things that, if not repaired, can cause an immediate risk to the teachers and students in school, like unabated asbestos and malfunctioning fire alarms. There are about $54.5 million in these repairs to be made throughout Rhode Island.
Nobody is saying it will be easy, and there is the issue of a growing deficit in the state budget that jeopardizes a lot more than being able to repair schools, but the governor is right – something must be done, and now, because the condition of some of these schools need to be addressed. We have to start somewhere.