2017-12-21 / Front Page

Panel: $500M in bonds needed for schools

Task force also recommends 35-percent reimbursement rate for town
BY TIM RIEL

The governor’s task force charged with drafting a financial plan to fix the state’s 306 public schools has recommended issuing $500 million in bonds in the next 10 years.

“Every child deserves to go to a school that is warm, safe, dry and equipped for 21st century learning,” said General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, co-chair of the panel. “We cannot afford to wait any longer.”

The 19-member task force, convened by Gov. Gina Raimondo in September following a Jacobs Engineering report that indicated $2.2 billion in deficiencies across Rhode Island, unanimously approved the recommendations at last week’s final meeting. Andy Nota, Jamestown’s chief executive, was among those members to endorse a referendum in 2018.

The panel also determined the reimbursement percentages for each school district, which ranged from 35 percent to 96 percent. Jamestown is among 20 cities and towns at the low end of that spectrum. The state, however, is offering additional credits for certain projects, including asbestos abatement, green energy and handicap accessibility. According to Nota, the town could earn an extra 17.5 percentage points in bonuses.

“We are taking a serious look at these incentives,” he said.

Nota did mention glitches in the monumental proposal. First, the program is not detailed and the state Department of Education has no standards for school buildings. For example, there is a “heavy emphasis on maintenance,” he said, although it is not specified. The only caveat is for a district to spend 3 percent of the building’s replacement costs annually on maintenance.

While the Jacobs report estimated $16.3 million in repairs to Melrose and Lawn schools, the school department applied for $8.5 million through the state, which is mandated for a district to seek reimbursement. Superintendent Ken Duva, however, said the town only expects to spend about $5 million.

While that “sticker shock” is easier to swallow than the preliminary number, Nota cautioned there could more on the horizon. He anticipates another round of money will be needed within 10 years. With that burden hanging over the school committee’s head, he expects the board to consider alternatives before it approaches the town council for money.

During the council and school board’s Dec. 11 budget session, the first meeting aimed at the 2018-19 fiscal year, B.J. Whitehouse said his committee would continue to be fiscally responsible as it looks toward the future.

“I don’t want to ask for more money than we need,” the school committee chairman said. “We are going to ask for the money needed to maintain this level of education.”

According to Duva, the district does not want to pinpoint discretional projects, including an athletic track and air conditioning, which both were recommended by Jacobs. Instead, the priorities in the upcoming phase include windows, flooring, roofs, HVAC controls and oil tanks. He also wants to remove the asbestos from Lawn School, which was built in the 1950s.

Finally, Duva said he was encouraged following a visit from state education officials earlier in the month.

“The authority commended us on our facilities,” he said. “These are the projects they want to fund. They know that we are going to be responsible to keep the buildings dry, safe and warm.”

The $2.2 billion listed on the Jacobs report includes $600 million in immediate repairs to keep schools open and safe across the Ocean State. The $500 million, out of a possible bonding maximum of $1.2 billion, will almost cover those crucial repairs, according to the task force. Nota, however, said it will be an uphill battle.

“It’ll be a challenge to get it through the legislature,” he said.

Ken Wagner, the state’s education commissioner, co-chaired the panel with Magaziner.

“This isn’t just about making bold investments,” he said in a press release. “It’s about making smart investments. This report is an important step forward in a long-term process that will help our students succeed.”

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