RI schools need $2.2B in repairs. Here are 12 things everyone should know

Governor names 16-member task force to determine next steps by December

Potter Burns Elementary School in Pawtucket.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Public schools across Rhode Island will need more than $2 billion in repairs or upgrades in the coming years, according to a study released Wednesday by Gov. Gina Raimondo.

The long-awaited report prepared by consulting firms Jacobs and Cooperative Strategies estimates the state’s 306 public school campuses need $2.2 billion in repairs – more than $627 million of which is required just so every school in Rhode Island can be labeled warm, safe and dry.

So what types of problems do schools have and how will they be addressed? Here’s an overview. (You can read the consultants’ full report here and their recommendations here.)

It would cost $2.2 billion to bring schools into good condition.
The consultants analyzed all 306 of Rhode Island’s public school campuses – from pre-school to high school – and identified 50,500 deficiencies within approximately 24.1 million square feet of space. Those problems have a wide range when it comes to severity, from broken or nonexistent fire-suppression systems to relatively minor issues like the need to repaint or improve signage. All told, it would cost $2.2 billion for every school in the state to meet aspirational standards, which essentially means bringing them into good condition. But as any car mechanic would say, the longer you wait, the more it will cost. A similar report released in 2013 suggested it would cost $1.8 billion to bring every school into good condition. The updated report, which state officials consider more accurate, now pegs the cost at $2.2 billion. And when projecting needs that could arise over the next five years, the consultants found that the tab could reach $3 billion by 2022.

Not every repair is urgent.
If you stick with the car analogy, most people would agree that the brake job should take priority over something cosmetic like fixing a small dent. Same goes with school repairs. The report separates the deficiencies into five levels: Priority 1 means there are mission-critical concerns that “may directly affect the school’s ability to remain open or deliver the educational curriculum.” (Think fire alarm replacements.) Priority 2 means the deficiencies could have an indirect impact on the educational mission, like the need to fix roofs or windows. Priority 3 focuses on short-term conditions, like the need to make site improvements or address plumbing deficiencies. Priority 4 represents long-term improvements needed for the instructional environment, like cabinets or finishes. Priority 5 deficiencies are aesthetic in nature, including repainting, recarpeting or improved signage. Of the $2.2 billion in needed repairs, close to 70% of the potential costs come from deficiencies in Levels 3, 4 and 5. But that doesn’t mean the state can simply put off two-thirds of the work that needs to be done. Deficiencies are still deficiencies. And something In Level 3 today could easily fall into Levels 2 or 1 or next year.

More than $600 million is needed to keep schools warm, safe and dry.
That brings us to the immediate needs. The consultants found $627.6 million in deficiencies that fall in Levels 1 and 2, which threaten to ability for schools to remain warm, safe and dry. Nearly all of the $54.5 million in Level 1 deficiencies are related to fire and life safety, which generally means the schools need to install a fire-suppression system or fix a broken one. Of the $572.9 million in deficiencies that fall in Level 2, the largest amounts need to be spent on mechanical fixes like heating/air conditioning systems ($238 million), exterior improvements like doors and windows ($158 million) and roofing repairs ($127 million). Aside from the basic problem with sending students to schools that might be cold, dangerous or wet, it’s important to understand that educational outcomes are also affected. Students and teachers are more likely to get sick in those schools, which leads to higher rates of absenteeism. More than one in four high school students missed at least 18 days of school during the 2015-16 school year, according to the R.I. Department of Education. (RIDE started tracking teacher absenteeism last year, but those rates haven’t been released yet.)

Rhode Island schools are old and enrollment is falling.
The average schoolhouse in the state is 56 years old and 17% of the campuses were built prior to 1950, according to the report. The consultants suggest that by the time a school reaches 30 years of age, “its building systems are beyond their useful life.” At the same time, public school enrollment fell from 151,619 students during the 2006-07 school year to 142,014 during the 2015-16 school year, a 6% drop in about a decade; enrollment is expected to drop another 4% over the next decade. And Rhode Island elementary, middle and high schools all have average enrollments lower than the national median.

Every school district has infrastructure challenges.
As you might expect, the largest deficiency costs in the state come from the largest districts, including Providence ($372 million), Warwick ($190 million), Pawtucket ($176 million) and Cranston ($165 million). But no district has every school in perfect condition. South Kingstown needs $62 million in repairs, Portsmouth needs $52 million and Lincoln needs about $48 million. The state reimburses cities and towns for anywhere between 35% and 97% of the amounts they spend on school repairs, with the wealthier communities paying more than cities like Central Falls or Providence. But the state only sets aside about $70 million a year for school building aid reimbursements, plus another $10 million to cover shovel-ready projects, so cities and towns can’t just begin borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars right away.

To pay for repairs, expect lots of borrowing.
Covering the cost of $2.2 billion in repairs is going to take a significant commitment from both the state and all of its communities. The state will likely have to increase the amount it is willing to reimburse cities and towns each year, and cities and towns are probably going to need to increase the amount they borrow to fund the projects. Why can’t they just pay as they go? Consider this: the combined amount cities and towns across Rhode Island were expected to generate in property tax revenue during the 2016-17 fiscal year was $2.4 billion. The total amount needed to upgrade all of Rhode Island’s schools is $2.2 billion. No community can afford to dedicate its entire levy to schools. That doesn’t mean smaller projects can’t be paid for using funds straight from a local budget, but larger upgrades will almost certainly come from local bonds. (In many communities, that will require voter approval.) Providence has already committed to borrowing $200 million over the next decade for repairs, although the city has the option to proceed without voter approval if it borrows through the Providence Public Buildings Authority (PPBA). One of the consultants’ recommendations is to consider a statewide bond that could go on the ballot next year, although the question would need to be approved by the General Assembly.

Some schools may need to be replaced or closed.
The consultants suggest that any school whose repair needs exceed 65% of the total cost to build a new school should be a candidate for replacement. That doesn’t mean that every school that falls into that category will be replaced. A phrase you’ll likely hear a lot in the next few years is “newer and fewer,” which would be a form of consolidation. State officials point to Claiborne Pell Elementary School in Newport, which opened in 2013 in place of several aging schools, as the model for this effort. Others could follow suit, especially since the average elementary school in Rhode Island houses just 358 students, compared to the national median of 520 students.

The state and districts have lots of things to consider.
The report lays out a series of potential options for state and local leaders to consider in the coming months. When it comes to fiscal strategies, the consultants suggested lowering the state reimbursement percentage for cities and towns to between 30% and 80% so that more projects could be funded; a statewide bond; more annual construction aid (possibly $91 million a year); and a dedicated funding stream for school repairs, possibly through an existing tax. (Massachusetts, for example, dedicates a portion of its sales tax revenue to school construction, and Governor Raimondo suggested such an approach as a candidate.) At the same time, local districts need to focus on the immediate – warm, safe and dry – needs of schools and look into the idea of newer and fewer schools. Among the strategic recommendations made by the consultants: prioritize essential projects; encourage districts to use capital reserve funds rather than borrowing; consider public-private partnerships; develop a community engagement strategy; and establish basic standards for school infrastructure.

Keep an eye on charter schools.
While enrollment at traditional public schools dropped 9% between the 2006-07 and 2015-16 school years, the number of students enrolled in public charter, collaborative and state-operated schools more than doubled from 3,751 students to 8,158 students. That number is expected to grow another 52% over the next 10 years, according to the consultants. Because more than half of charter schools are using leased spaces, they do not currently qualify for school housing reimbursements from the state. One of the recommendations made by the consultants is for the state to explore ways to provide aid to those schools, “bridging the gap from charter approval to ownership of a facility.”

Schools can’t tackle the problems all at once.
Even if the state and communities somehow fell into $2.2 billion for school repairs tomorrow, it would be impossible to accomplish all the work right away. For one, students are in school most of the year. Most of the upgrades will need to occur over the summer, which only gives construction workers roughly eight weeks to accomplish everything. State officials are going to tell districts to focus on the most important projects first, but everyone agrees it will take years to address all of the challenges.

The state has already taken some steps when it comes to school infrastructure.
We’re not that far removed from the state’s five-year moratorium on all new construction aid, which essentially created a backlog of projects for districts across the state. The freeze on funding ended in 2015 and Raimondo also created a new program designed to help shovel-ready projects. That allowed schools like Potter Burns Elementary in Pawtucket to spend $14 million on repairs. But state officials agree that more budget money will likely be needed in the coming years to begin addressing school deficiencies on a wider scale.

A new task force will make recommendations by the end of the year.
The governor has asked General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Education Commissioner Ken Wagner to lead a 16-member task force that will make recommendations by Dec. 15 on how the state should move forward with its school infrastructure plans. The group, which includes lawmakers, union and local leaders and other stakeholders like Rhode Island Foundation President Neil Steinberg, will review the consultants’ report and craft its own plan.

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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