Rhode Island’s Schools, Infrastructure In Desperate Need of Repair

Monday, March 18, 2013


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While the true extent of the damage is unknown, estimates say RI buildings being neglected, like the rest of the country.

At a time when school districts are battling rising pension costs, lower state and local aid and increasingly difficult unfunded mandates, the one thing being forgotten and neglected the most is the one thing, besides students and teachers, needed more than anything else: the school buildings themselves.

According the Center for Green Schools, America’s elementary and secondary education buildings are in such a bad state that it would take more than $270 billion just to get them back into their original conditions and more than double that to bring them up to current health, safety and educational standards.

And perhaps the most concerning thing, especially locally, is the true extent of the damage and repairs remains unknown as the last real, comprehensive nationwide study hasn’t been updated since 1995.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t made the investments in America’s infrastructure that we should, and I worry it could have real impacts on our economy and the middle class,” U.S. Senator Jack Reed said. “It would seem to me that getting a nationwide estimate of the need for school modernization would be very helpful. We need to pay special attention to the schools that educate our most disadvantaged students. We need to out-educate our competition, and we will not be able to do that unless we ensure that students and teachers have safe, modern, and well-equipped schools.”

A Nationwide Problem

The Center for Green Schools’ report took a look at available spending data from across the country from the last year the government conducted a full look into the issue through its Government Accountability Office (GAO) until 2008 and estimated that districts spent less than half what they should have to keep up with maintaining their infrastructure.

All told, based on the formula used during the last GAO, schools across the country spent $211 billion on repairs when they should have spent closer to $482 billion, leaving a difference of nearly $300 billion in untended to repairs.

For Congressman Jim Langevin, the issue is one he believes Congress has long neglected at the federal level.

“We cannot expect to train our students for the jobs of the 21st century in facilities that were falling apart in the 20th century,” Congressman Jim Langevin said. “The state of our educational infrastructure documented in this report demands a federal commitment at a time of strapped state budgets and highlights the need to end sequestration’s irrational approach of across the board budget cutting that treats our highest priorities the same as our lowest. There are ways to get our fiscal house in order, including raising revenue by closing tax loopholes, that do not force our students to attend school in dilapidated, and even unsafe, buildings that are not conducive to learning.”

Why it Matters to Rhode Island

While the Center for Green Schools’ report contains an estimate of the issue on the nationwide level, the only current evidence of how bad Rhode Island school districts have it remains anecdotal at best as many districts in the state, like North Kingstown last year, have had to go to voters for special bond projects just to keep up with repairs as simple as drainage issues to ones as complicated as complete roof repairs.

But that may soon change.

According to Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) spokesperson Elliot Krieger, RIDE will be publishing information detailing the current state of RI’s school “within the next few weeks,” but he declined to release any detail early.

What can be gleaned about the state’s infrastructure, based on the most recently available data used by the Center for Green Schools, is the state has its work cut out for itself.

Using a report by the 21st Century School Fund on state capital spending projects, RIDE said that school districts spent a “total of $642 million from all sources on capital outlay for school construction and for acquisition of land and existing structures in fiscal years 2005 through 2008.”

That was good enough for an approximate total of $1,116 per student, the 17th highest per student spending in the country, but Reed says more must be done.

Asking for Help

“This is very important,” he said. “It is estimated that the average age of Rhode Island school buildings is about 57 years old. Many of the buildings need to be replaced or upgraded – especially if students and teachers are going to have access to the tools and technology they need to develop 21st century skills.”

The two-term Senator says Congress has had a number of initiatives aimed to tackle this very problem at the federal level but political gridlock derailed much of the momentum.

“In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we were able to get a number of bond provisions to support school modernization and construction, including the Qualified School Construction Bonds, the Build America Bonds, and an expansion of the Qualified Zone Academy Bonds,” he said. “Unfortunately, Republicans blocked our efforts to provide direct grants to high-need communities to build or modernize schools. Nevertheless, the state fiscal stabilizion funds that were provided through the Recovery Act allowed for modernization and construction.”

Representative David Cicilline agrees that investments must be made in this area, both in Rhode Island and across the country.

“There is no question that modern, safe schools have a positive impact on teaching and learning,” he said. “That’s why I co-sponsored the Fix America’s School Today Act in the 112th Congress and, just this past week, co-sponsored an amendment to improve the Republican budget by including President Obama’s initiative to prevent teacher layoffs and put people back to work modernizing our public school infrastructure.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse agrees.

"Investing in Rhode Island's schools will support badly needed construction jobs and help prepare our children to lead productive and fulfilling lives," he said. "Students in unsafe and unhealthy schools have higher absentee and dropout rates, while modernized schools help our children achieve in the classroom and are an asset to the entire community. I was frustrated when Republicans blocked us from including funding for school renovations in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, but I will continue to fight in Congress for future school investments in our state." 

In the meantime, Reed cautions, Rhode Islanders need to be patient.

“Parents are rightfully concerned about every component of their child’s education so this is very important for Rhode Island,” Reed said. “The average Rhode Island school building is over 50 years old. However, school districts are really challenged, and I believe that they are doing the best they can. They are just beginning to recover from the deep recession and have been making do with less. They have embarked on an ambitious set of school reforms that require time and resources.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include input from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.


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