Mayor Elorza wants to borrow $200M for school repairs

Mayor Elorza announces plan to borrow at least $200 million for school repairs. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said Monday he wants to borrow at least $200 million over 10 years to fund infrastructure improvements at schools throughout the city.

Elorza, a Democrat who is planning to seek re-election next year, made the announcement at a press conference at Mount Pleasant High School, a 79-year-old building located in Providence’s northwestern corner. Construction workers are currently making improvements there to the school’s facade.

“Our students deserve to be in schools that inspire them to learn,” Elorza said. “Our schools of the past cannot properly serve our students’ needs of the future and this is our chance to take a leap forward.”

A wide array of city and state politicians, labor leaders and community activists attended the morning press conference to show support for the proposal. Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, who represents part of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, said the mayor’s plan would need to be vetted by the City Council Finance Committee, but indicated it appears to be fiscally responsible.

Because existing debt is projected to come off the books in the coming years, Elorza said the city has the ability to borrow about $400 million over the next 10 years for school repairs without increasing current debt service levels. But he is only committing to borrow $200 million at this point.

The city has set aside $67 million for debt service in the current fiscal year. The mayor has separately committed to borrowing $45 million for other city infrastructure improvements – like roads and sidewalks – later this year.

The state reimburses Providence for 83% of all school construction costs, but municipalities are typically required to borrow the money up front. In the city’s case, school repair funds are usually borrowed through the Providence Public Buildings Authority without voter approval.

“We at Providence Public Schools are enthused and energized by the Elorza administration’s commitment to improving our students’ learning environments,” Superintendent Christopher Maher said in a statement. “We encourage the community to help us identify the most critical infrastructure priorities for the moment and to envision the most innovative solutions for the future.”

Elorza said he has hired Dr. Frank Locker as a school planning consultant to craft a strategic plan to rehabilitate the city’s 38 school buildings, which needed $331 million in repairs to be brought to good condition, according to the R.I. Department of Education’s 2013 Public School Assessment. The state is expected to release an updated assessment next month. Elorza said it is a “real possibility” the city could build new schools.

Over the next year, Locker will be tasked with developing a five-year capital plan for the city’s schools. Elorza said Locker and city officials will seek community input on both the visioning process and the master planning process. The city will hold workshops to envision facility options and then host a citywide community conversation to make recommendations.

Locker will be paid $30,000 for his work, according to a spokesperson for the city. The city has set aside $75,000 for the planning phase.

Elorza said he expects to begin borrowing funds for school repairs in 2019, assuming he wins re-election next year. He acknowledged the next mayor would need to continue his plan because he is term-limited in 2022.

The mayor said the city is already planning to spend about $15 million in the current fiscal year on more immediate school improvements, including the work happening at Mount Pleasant High School and Central High School. Maher said he expects Central, which was forced to close several classrooms last year because of a mold problem, to be fully operational when students report back to school on Sept. 5.

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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