Johnston school officials and local leaders joined in applauding Senator Jack Reed at Johnston High School last Friday as he talked about legislation he introduced last August for $100 billion in federal funds to repair the nation’s school systems.
“We are here because we understand that we have to have safe, modern and healthy schools for Rhode Island. It’s for the welfare of the children and it’s for the future of this state and this country. This is a great community and it’s a wonderful school here, but earlier this week it had burst pipes and a maintenance crisis,” said Reed. “They got it straightened out because of the leadership of the mayor and his colleagues here in the schools, but these last few weeks have highlighted again the need to modernize and fix our schools all across the country.”
According to Sen. Reed’s office, high-quality, safe and modern school facilities support and enhance the health, well-being and learning experience of the over 50 million students who attend public schools, the six million staff who work in schools, and the neighborhoods and environments where they are located.
“States and local communities need the help. My legislation would create direct grants to states to modernize schools, particularly in our highest need communities,” said Reed. “It will also help improve school infrastructure by authorizing bonds so that borrowing by local communities and states would be more affordable.”
Reed’s information cited a 2014 Department of Education study, which estimated that it would cost $197 billion to bring all public schools into “good” condition. Nationally, there is also a $38 billion funding gap in annual capital construction and new facility funding, as reported in the 2016 State of Our Schools report. Also highlighted was the fact that K-12 facility infrastructure is an important part of the construction economy, accounting for nearly a quarter of state and local infrastructure investments, second only to highways. However, federal funding accounts for 0.2 percent of the total current capital investment in schools.
“The Trump Administration is going to propose an infrastructure bill. I believe that the federal government has to be a partner with the state and local governments to fix our schools,” said Reed. “I’m looking at a bipartisan effort to include school infrastructure in the infrastructure bill to provide resources to local communities to fix the schools.”
Reed’s Bill, The School Building Improvement Act of 2017, would provide a total of $100 billion in direct grants and school construction bonds over 10 years to help fill the $38 billion annual gap in school facility capital construction need.
“This is truly a special day, no doubt about it. As we gather here today to gather some very important information of federal legislation that will be sponsored by our own Sen. Jack Reed and his colleague Sen. Sherrod Brown from Ohio,” said Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, who hosted the forum in the high school’s auditorium. “It’s no secret that all of us in this room have aging school buildings that may not be conducive for learning for our children and our future generations of Rhode Islanders. This federal bill proposal will include much needed funding to our communities…and it would create as many as 1.8 million construction jobs.”
The 1.8 million jobs figure is based on analysis that each $1 billion spent on construction creates 17,785 jobs.
Information provided by the senator’s office highlighted the main points of The School Building Improvement Act. The measure provides formula funding to states for local competitive grants for school repair, renovation and construction. These grants focus assistance on states and communities with the greatest financial need, would encourage green construction practices, establish equitable access for public charter schools, contain state matching criteria, and outline permissible criteria for spending. Projects also require the use of American-made iron, steel and manufactured products.
In addition, the measure would provide $30 billion for qualified school infrastructure bonds, create a comprehensive study of the physical condition of public schools at least once every five years, and provide a temporary increase of $100 million for Impact Aid construction.
The legislation is supported by the American Federation of Teachers, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Education Association, the National Parent Teacher Association and others.
“You don’t realize all the costs that we incur by just putting these Band-Aids on. We’re taking this seriously, enough is enough. We have over a billion dollars of need to rebuild our school buildings,” said Governor Gina Raimondo during the forum. “Too many of our school buildings get a failing grade; they don’t even pass the basic standard of warm, safe and dry.”
Raimondo stated that she’s prepared to make a “big investment” in Rhode Island, and later during her State of the State address asked for $1 billion for education infrastructure. [The $1 billion is a compilation of state annual funding, bonds and municipal spending.] She cited the Jacobs report, a report published last summer that found that there were $2.2 billon worth of repairs needed for Rhode Island schools to bring them to modern levels.
“We’re going to be judged by what we do for our kids and the promises and dreams that we have for them, and I think it’s time to step up. The treasurer and I have been working hard on this, and next week when I put my budget into the General Assembly I’m going to be proposing a bold, once in a generation investment in our schools and I’m going to ask the legislature to put a bond on the ballot, and I believe the people of Rhode Island are going to do the right thing,” she said.
The statewide report by Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. assessed every school building and reported that approximately $53 million worth of work is needed to bring Johnston’s schools into the modern era.
Saying that most school buildings in the state were built in the 1950s, the governor focused on Cranston schools, particularly Cranston East, stating that the school is keeping windows closed with “duct tape and trash bags” and said that “our kids deserve better.”
“We had three to four feet of water come into the first floor of an elementary school in Cranston last week. There were kids in the building,” said Commissioner of Education Dr. Ken Wagner during the assembly. “If not for the cool and calm composure of the teachers who got the students out of the building as the water came in and crashed through metal doors, it’s not inconceivable that a child could have drowned in that situation. Infrastructure matters.”
Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr., who was on hand for the legislation introduction along with mayors, town administrators and superintendents from across the state, saw the need for increased funding.
“Funding is always limited. With Senator Reed’s bill, that supplements what hopefully will get through the local legislature in terms of Governor Raimondo’s bill,” said DiLullo. “The needs assessment identified $2.2 billion of work need for public education. Here in Johnston, what my dream would be is a campus style elementary school for grades one through five and continue with an Early Childhood Center possibly using one of our better buildings such as the Windsor Hill building.”
While acknowledging that there are uncertainties with future funding, DiLullo was optimistic that funding at the federal level would eventually be passed.
“I’m looking forward to being able to start planning for better buildings in our district. Our buildings are in good shape. They’re old, but they’re in good shape,” said DiLullo.