With RI schools needing billions in repairs, task force holds first meeting

Education Commissioner Ken Wagner and state Treasurer Seth Magaziner, the co-chairs of the Rhode Island School Building Task Force. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A task force assigned to map out a strategy for addressing Rhode Island’s school infrastructure needs met for the first time Friday to discuss a consultant’s report that found the state’s 306 public schools will need between $600 million and $3 billion in repairs in the coming years.

During a 90-minute meeting at Rhode Island College, the 16-member Rhode Island School Building Task Force was presented with an overview of the infrastructure challenges facing every school district in the state made by representatives from Jacobs, the consulting firm who evaluated all of the state’s schools over the last few years.

The numbers are big: addressing the most urgent needs in every school – making them all warm, safe and dry – would cost $627 million. In order to bring all schools into good condition, the cost would be $2.2 billion. The projected costs could grow to $3 billion when anticipated future repairs are considered.

The task force, co-chaired by state Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Education Commissioner Ken Wagner, is comprised of union leaders, policymakers and local officials. Magaziner said it will likely meet five or six times before it issues a report outlining recommendations. The report is due to Gov. Gina Raimondo Dec. 15.

“The longer we wait to do something about this, the more expensive it’s going to get,” Magaziner said prior to the Jacobs presentation.

The task force didn’t dive into potential solutions during Friday’s meeting, although everyone involved has acknowledged paying for the repairs will likely require more borrowing from municipalities and, potentially, the state.

Magaziner noted that the state’s current school repair formula requires municipalities to borrow funds up front, with the state providing approximately $80 million in reimbursements each year. State reimbursement rates range from 35% to 97% depending on the district, but the program can be inefficient because communities with lower bond ratings end up borrowing at higher interest rates.

The consultants from Jacobs recommended a range of options for state and local leaders to consider, including a statewide bond, more annual construction aid in the state budget and a dedicated funding stream for school repairs. On the local side, the consultants have suggested potentially consolidating smaller schools into new, larger school buildings.

The consultants have also recommended the state prioritize essential projects; encourage districts to use capital reserve funds in order to limit the amount of borrowing; consider public-private partnerships; develop a community engagement strategy; and establish basic standards for school infrastructure.

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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