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Cities, towns across RI seek to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars for school repairs

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Every voter in Rhode Island will be asked this November if they want to allow the state to borrow $250 million to assist with infrastructure improvements in schools across the state.

But voters in eight communities – Cumberland, East Providence, Jamestown, North Kingstown, Pawtucket, Providence, Smithfield and Warwick – will see a second school bond question on the ballot as part of their local plans to fix up their crumbling buildings.

All told, those cities and towns are seeking to borrow more than $770 million, from $40 million in Warwick up to $220 million in Pawtucket. When combined with the statewide bond question, voters will consider more than $1 billion in school-related borrowing on Nov. 6.

“The state of our school buildings is Rhode Island is so bad that it is going to take many years before we are on a statewide basis giving our kids and our teachers the kind of schools they deserve, state Treasurer Seth Magaziner told Eyewitness News in a recent interview.

Magaziner, a Democrat running for re-election himself this year, is leading the charge to convince voters to approve the $250-million statewide bond question this year, but he acknowledges it will take a partnership between the state and cities and towns to fully address the projected $2.2-billion in improvements needed to bring every school into good condition.

Magaziner and Education Commissioner Ken Wagner led a task force in 2017 that crafted a plan for addressing the state’s school infrastructure problem. The group used a consultant’s review of every school in the state as their guide, but then released series of recommendations for the General Assembly during the last legislative session.

The plan the state came up with involves borrowing $500 million over 10 years on the state level, continuing a practice of reimbursing cities and towns between $80 million and $100 million a year for repairs they’ve already made, and asking communities to cover the rest of the cost.  

The state already covers between 35% and 97% of all school construction costs depending on the district, but a plan approved by the General Assembly would create a bonus system to incentivizes communities to move quickly to make repairs. The state typically requires communities to pay for projects up front and then be reimbursed over time, but Magaziner said he’s hopeful the $250-million bond will support pay-as-you-go projects.

Some communities aren’t waiting for the statewide bond.

In Providence, where voters will be asked to approve the borrowing of $160 million this year, officials have said they believe their current 83% state reimbursement rate could grow closer to 90% based on incentives.

City officials have said they are not planning to borrow the funds all at once, but they don’t want to have put another bond question in front of voters in the coming years.

“The city is prioritizing a $160 million investment through a bond referendum for improvements to school facilities, because my administration and the Providence City Council believe the greatest investments we can make for the future of our city are those that directly support our youth,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said. “A long-term investment of this magnitude is necessary and is a value statement of how we are ‘all in for education in Providence.”

In North Kingstown, voters will be asked to approve a $27-million bond, although some of the funds will be reserved for projects that aren’t related to schools. Superintendent Phil Auger said the school money will be used for upgrades to all of the town’s schools, including an HVAC system and track and field facility at the high school.

Smithfield voters will be asked to borrow $45 million to address the district’s “aging elementary facilities,” according to Superintendent Judith Paolucci. She said the town is planning to close Winsor Elementary School and expand McCabe Elementary School. The Old County Road School will also be refurbished.

“The work of the elementary reconfiguration committee began over three years ago to consider various options to find the most economical and practical solution to our school facility needs,” Paolucci told Eyewitness News.

Magaziner said he supports cities and towns seeking to borrow funds to school repairs, but he’s focusing most of his energy on the $250-million bond.

“Rhode Island hasn't done a statewide bond in 30 years,” he said. “Massachusetts has done it seven out of the last 10 years.”

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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

 

 


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