Task force wants RI to borrow $500 million for school repairs

Education Commissioner Ken Wagner and Treasurer Seth Magaziner are co-chairs of the R.I. School Building Task Force.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A task force charged with reviewing Rhode Island’s school infrastructure needs is recommending the state borrow $500 million for repairs by 2022, according to a draft report released Thursday.

Under the Rhode Island School Building Task Force’s proposal, the state would ask voters to approve a $250 million general-obligation bond when they head to the polls next November and again in 2022 to help fund the much-needed repairs. The $500 million represents slightly half of the state’s borrowing capacity over the next decade.

“To meet the ambitious goals laid out by the Task Force, both the state and municipalities must commit to prioritizing school facilities in budgets and capital plans going forward,” the report states. “While we live in an era of constrained budgets and competing priorities, the safety and wellbeing of children must be paramount.”

The task force, which is co-chaired by General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Education Commissioner Ken Wagner, is expected to vote on a final version of the report next week. Gov. Gina Raimondo has said she will use the recommendations as a guide as she crafts her budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which is due to lawmakers next month.

The 16-member task force was created by Raimondo in September after consulting firm Jacobs released a study showing $627 million is needed to keep all of the state’s public schools “warm, safe and dry.” 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.

Aside from borrowing $500 million, the task force is recommending the state move toward a pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) program for funding school infrastructure projects rather than the current system, which requires municipalities to borrow funds up front and then seek reimbursement from state. Magaziner has said a PAYGO system similar to one adopted in Massachusetts would reduce the amount of debt that cities and towns are forced to take on.

Municipalities would still be required to partially fund all projects, with the state covering between 35% and 97% of all costs depending on the district. But the task force is also recommending the state adopt a bonus program to incentivize cities and towns to move quickly on repairs. In addition to borrowing $500 million, the task force also recommends the state continue to spend at least $80 million a year reimbursing communities for construction projects.

Under the bonus program, cities and towns would be eligible to receive extra state funding for prioritizing schools that need to be made “warm, safe and dry” as well as projects that focus on enhancing the teaching of science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM), early childhood education or career and technical programs. The bonus system would also incentivize new buildings and consolidation.

In an effort to control spending, the task force is recommending districts hire an owner’s project manager of the state’s choosing for all projects greater than $1.5 million. The state will also select commissioning agents to evaluate all projects valued above $1.5 million. Contractors would also have to meet a set of standards established by the state.

Continue the discussion on Facebook

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