Advocates urge RI leaders to increase funding for school repairs

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With Rhode Island schools needing nearly $2 billion in repairs, a group of policymakers and labor leaders are calling on state lawmakers to find ways to increase funding for construction-related projects in the coming years.

During a two-hour forum in the auditorium at the Providence Career and Technical Academy (PCTA), the Fix Our Schools Now Coalition unveiled a policy platform that includes asking the General Assembly to approve legislation that would raise taxes on the wealthy in order to fund school infrastructure projects.

The group, led by the Rhode Island AFL–CIO, is also asking lawmakers to allocate 1% of all state sales tax revenue for school repairs, similar to a policy Massachusetts already has in place. Other parts of the platform include increasing overall state funding for school construction as well as approving a statewide bond question for school infrastructure projects in 2018.

“It’s an indictment on us as a society that we allow this to happen when we know what needs to be done,” said George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL–CIO, referring to the condition of some of the state’s schools.

The average public school in Rhode Island is 61 years old – and many have started to show their age. In 2013, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) released an assessment that showed cities and towns would need to spend $1.7 billion to fully improve every school.

The state is currently conducting another study using an outside firm to evaluate each schools’ needs. That report will be released in June, according to Meg Geoghegan, a spokesperson for RIDE.

The state currently sets aside $71 million a year for school housing aid, although the majority of that money goes toward debt service on past projects. Another $9 million is set aside for high-priority projects through the Rhode Island School Building Authority Capital Fund.

General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, state Sen. Ryan Pearson, and state Rep. Gregg Amore – all Democrats – said they consider funding school repairs a top priority.

Magaziner, who once worked as a teacher with Teach for America in Louisiana, told the crowd he will support legislation this year that would tweak the school housing aid program to allow school districts to borrow through the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, which he pushed to create in 2015. He said it’s important to send the right message to students.

“When adults are letting their schools fall part, [students] know that the adults don’t feel what is happening in that building is important or valuable,” he said.

Pearson, a former Cumberland School Committee member, said he’s looking forward to seeing the updated state study on school repairs. He said he also wants to find ways to leverage state resources to make sure construction can be taken to scale.

“Now is the time,” he said. “This is the moment that we should be looking to do these things.”

Amore, a teacher in East Providence, described how his classroom has windows that are taped shut, a leaky roof and a heating system that rumbles when it starts. He said the state needs a “sustainable revenue system.”

“I think we have to look at this as RhodeWorks for schools, without the tolls,” he said.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan