WARREN — The state needs to get serious about its deteriorating school buildings and start a focused effort to fix the problem in every community, Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed on Wednesday while creating a Schools Task Force charged with studying how to accomplish that goal.
Raimondo, Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner, and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner joined other state officials and educators at the Kickemuit Middle School to highlight the results of statewide facilities study showing a need for $627.5 million in immediate school safety repairs and another projected $2.2 billion in spending needed to bring all schools into an “ideal condition,” for education.
“Every generation of Rhode Islanders has worked hard and made sacrifices so the next generation has more opportunity than the one before,” Raimondo said while announcing the study commission’s creation.
“But most of our classrooms and school buildings haven’t been improved in 25 years,” Raimondo said. “We must make a once-in-a-generation investment in our school buildings to address immediate health and safety needs in every district, and to give our children the 21st century classrooms they need to compete in the world today,” Raimondo said.
The Rhode Island Schools Task Force created by Raimondo with her signing of an executive order at the gathering will collect school district and public feedback on the needs of each community while working to create a set of priorities and timeline for addressing the most serious facility failings statewide.
The task force, co-chaired by Magaziner and Wagner, was formed with a list of 13 members holding education, building, union and trade representation, and child advocacy and health and government backgrounds.
The members named are:
• DOA Director Michael DiBiase, School Building Authority Advisory Board
• Senator Hanna Gallo (Cranston, West Warwick) on behalf of the Senate
• Jamestown Town Administrator Andy Nota, on behalf of the League of Cities and Towns
• Joseph Dewhirst, Chairman, Rhode Island Health and Educational Building Corporation
• Michael Sabitoni, President, RI Building and Construction Trades Council and Business Manager, Laborers Local 271
• Frank Flynn, President, Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals
• Larry Purtill, President, National Education Association of Rhode Island and Member, Council of Elementary and Secondary Education
• Kinzel Thomas, Providence School Board, on behalf of the RI Association of School Committees
• Barry Ricci, Chariho Superintendent, on behalf of the RI Superintendent's Association
• Patricia Flanagan, M.D., Pediatrician-in-Chief at Hasbro Children's Hospital and professor of pediatrics at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University
• Neil Steinberg, Rhode Island Foundation President
• John Hazen White, Jr., Chairman and Owner, Taco Comfort Solutions
• Elizabeth Burke Bryant, Executive Director, Rhode Island KIDS COUNT
The group will be reviewing the findings of a year-long study the state School Building Authority commissioned Jacobs Engineering to complete and which indentified the immediate need to spend the $627.5 million on high priority construction and repairs needed to “keep students and teachers warm, safe and dry in classrooms.”
Wagner explained that the work the commission will do is not to address the more recent building failings such as the roofing failures that affected the start of school in Central Falls.
“This isn’t about the immediate crises, we have processes for that,” Wagner said. “But because this work takes time, including planning and so on, this does signal to people to start your planning immediately,” he said.
Since the state lifted its moratorium on funding school improvements in 2015, Wagner said roughly $80 million a year has been invested in school debt service for prior projects or funding for new projects, a commitment he expects to continue.
“This is more of an infusion of additional funds to address as aggressively as we can those systemic issues that we have identified,” he said.
The working group is expected to report back with a recommendation by December so that a proposal could be possibly considered during the budget cycle of the upcoming legislative session, he noted. The report could provide a fiscal and prioritization strategy, “or what are the goals we are trying to achieve and what is the timeline,” Wagner said. The group is expected to use the forecast for the $627 million in immediate projects and $2.2 billion in overall improvements as bench marks for the final recommendation, he noted.
“So one of the goals of the work group will be to say that’s the range, so where are we going to get. Where are we going to try to get, using what vision and values, and over what period of time is what this discussion will be about,” Wagner said.
Raimondo said the immediate projects would address health and safety issues such as “paint falling down, tiles that are loose, HVAC systems that are broken, heating systems that are broken.” Those concerns affect teachers and students and detract from the education of students, she noted. “I’ve been in these schools and it is in every city and town and it’s not just urban districts, it’s suburban districts, you know anywhere,” she said.
The report about the school facilities will be online through the state’s Department of Education’s website.
, Raimondo said she would encourage parents to look up their neighborhood school and review the conditions in the building.
She also recommended that they “come out to one of our listening sessions and be part of the solution.”
Raimondo said state officials want to address the problems in a proper manner. “We’re trying to do this right. We are tired of the Band-Aid, so we commissioned a report done by national experts and engineers. It is a robust report and now we are going to take a few months to look at the problem and get an answer,” she said. “And in January, I am going to make a proposal to the legislature,” she added.
Part of the answer maybe be to invest in a creating a smaller number of better schools, she noted.
“Fewer and newer is the mantra. You want your kids to go to schools that are going to prepare them for the future that have broadbands, that have state of the art laboratories, that are bright and new and safe, or have a collaborative learning environment, that have a new library,” she said.
“And there are some schools that it may just be that we have to build anew because you can’t put a Band-Aid on it and that is gong to be part of this process,” she said.
Parents and communities will also have to have a voice in the process, she said. “This will be a community by community decision and the cities and towns are going to have to come up with their share of the money,” Raimondo said.
As for when the initiative might result in actual money being spent on improvements, Raimondo said that will be up to the upcoming legislative session.
“In January I will propose my plan to the legislature and it will go through the usual path. I expect that it is highly likely that we will see a bond on the ballot in November and then we will go from there,” Raimondo said.
Magaziner told the gathering that he is “excited,” about the challenge of working on school improvements.
“This is going to be an exciting, ambitious, intense, but I think ultimately really rewarding process. And I look forward to working with all of you in this room, the folks watching at home, and to stakeholders all across the state to finally fix our schools,” he said.
Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter: @JNad75