Providence to ask voters to borrow $140M for school construction

Providence

Repairs to Hope High School are on the current list of projects for the city’s five-year capital improvement plan, but an amended list of projects is expected to be released in August.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration has asked the City Council to approve a new $140 million bond for school buildings, which must also be approved by voters.

If approved, the money could be spent in part to build a new pre-K through 8th grade school, according to a new working list of projects submitted to the City Council on Thursday.

The project list — which is not finalized — estimates the cost of the new school building at $75 million. R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green first disclosed in June that the state was planning a new K-8 school in South Providence. (The state took control of the district last year, but the city still controls the buildings.)

The working list of projects that would be paid for using a $140 million bond. The mayor is asking the City Council to approve the bond referendum for November’s ballot.

The newly released project list does not say where the school would be. The city has previously confirmed talks are underway with Joe Paolino, who owns the former St. Joseph’s hospital building, about turning that facility into an educational space.

The new $140 million borrowing would be in addition to the $160 million bond voters approved in 2018, which has not yet been borrowed. (There’s a five year expiration to borrow the money.)

The latest school bond question is on a fast track to get approved to be on the ballot this November. The Providence City Council has called a special meeting for Friday to approve it before the deadline to get it to the Providence Board of Canvassers next week.

Bond questions also have to go through the General Assembly, and a bill to authorize the borrowing was passed by the House Finance Committee Wednesday night. The committee did not hear any testimony.

The combined $300 million (including both bonds) would go toward paying for the five-year capital improvement plan for Providence’s school buildings, passed in 2019, which a city spokesperson said will be amended in August.

The Elorza administration provided an updated working list of projects for the $160 million bond as well Thursday, listing 27 schools that would be slated to get repairs or improvements, including the unused Windmill Street School, which is listed as “swing space” in the document.

A working list of school construction projects identified for a $160 million bond voters approved in 2018.

Jordan Day, Elorza’s senior deputy chief operating officer, said at a Council Finance Committee meeting Thursday that RIDE has approved funding for nearly $50 million worth of the projects, meaning the city would only borrow $110 million instead of the full $160 million voters have authorized.

R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has repeatedly said school buildings in particularly bad shape could be taken offline so resources can be focused toward new buildings or other school renovations, but neither the state nor city has identified a specific school that might close.

The discussion on improving or building schools comes at a time when it’s not clear if students will even be occupying the buildings when the new year begins Aug. 31.

State health officials are expected to make a final determination on whether schools can reopen around Aug. 17, and new metrics released Wednesday indicate the state is not processing COVID-19 tests fast enough to open right now.

The new bond question was not revealed publicly until this week, when it was discussed at a City Council Finance Committee meeting.

“It’s the first time it’s been brought to our attention,” Chairman John Igliozzi said on Tuesday. “Why is the council just hearing about this now?”

The city’s Chief Financial Officer, Larry Mancini, said the new borrowing proposal comes from “critical changes in strategy” in the school capital plan that required more money.

“We know that every investment in our youth is an investment in the future of our city,” Elorza said in a statement. “We have a unique opportunity before us now to create the welcoming, dynamic and inspiring spaces our youth and families have advocated for years. That’s why in partnership with the Providence City Council, I am prioritizing this $140 million investment as another step towards building the innovative, 21st century education system our community needs.”

A portion of the borrowed funds for the school construction will be able to be reimbursed by the state, but it’s not yet clear exactly how much.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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