‘Bonus system’ would incentivize communities to move fast on school repairs

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A task force reviewing ways to improve Rhode Island’s crumbling schools wants the state to provide extra aid to communities willing to move quickly to make repairs.

Recommendations approved Wednesday by the Rhode Island School Building Task Force ask the state to provide more funding to cities and towns that prioritize 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 school consolidation.

The 16-member panel, co-chaired by state Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Education Commissioner Ken Wagner, is also recommending the state seek to borrow $500 million by 2022 to partially fund some of the repairs. The panel wants the state to continue setting aside an additional $80 million a year to reimburse communities for school infrastructure projects.

Prior to the vote, Magaziner called the recommendations “ambitious enough to seriously address the problem,” but also fiscally responsible. He reminded the task force that the proposal must still go through the legislative process. (Gov. Gina Raimondo is expected to incorporate the recommendations into her budget proposal early next year.)

“This is not the end of the process, it’s the beginning of the process,” Magaziner said.

The 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.

The state already covers between 35% and 97% of all school construction costs depending on the district, but the bonus system the task force is recommending would allow communities to receive additional funding if they meet certain criteria.

Cities and towns that commit to repairing a school’s most urgent needs – such as installing or fixing a fire-suppression system or improving an air-conditioning or heating system – by December 2022 would be eligible for the state to cover an additional 5% of the project on top of the existing reimbursement rate.

Districts that invest in projects devoted to enhancing the teaching of STEAM, early-childhood education or career and technical education by December 2022 would also be eligible to receive an extra five percent of the costs from the state.

Communities willing to consolidate existing schools or build new ones by December 2023 would be eligible to receive between 5% and 20% more funding from the state, according to the recommendations.

Wednesday’s meeting was held at East Providence High School, which was built in 1952. The state consultant’s report found the school needs about $38 million in repairs, nearly a third of which would be consider high-priority improvements. Superintendent Kathryn Crowley said the plan is to build a new high school.

On a tour of the school after the meeting, Director of Security and Facilities Anthony Feola showed the task force rusty pipes, crumbling concrete and cracked walls and ceilings in parts of the school that have been deemed unsafe for students. He said the aging infrastructure caused them to shut down the pool, and some equipment is so old it’s impossible to find replacement parts. Replacing the pipes would require significant demolition to access the plumbing system.

“At the rate we’ve been going, these schools have been falling apart faster than we’ve been fixing them,” Magaziner said.

Aside from the bonus system and 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 the state.

The task force met six times between September and December, receiving presentations on the needs of the state schools and the financial implications of an infrastructure plan. Officials from Massachusetts also attended a meeting to explain how their state handles school repairs.

Many of the recommendations approved Wednesday are modeled after Massachusetts, but unlike the Bay State, the task force is not asking state leaders to set aside one percent of the sales tax for school repairs.

Neil Steinberg, CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation and a member of the task force, said not having a dedicated revenue source is significant.

“We are not doing what Massachusetts is doing and we shouldn’t fool ourselves,” 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