Metro, News

R.I. school facilities fail state evaluation

State’s first independent commission predicts $627.6 million cost for construction, repairs

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2017

Every school facility in Rhode Island received a failing grade in the state’s first independent evaluation of school buildings, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education’s 2017 State of Rhode Island Schoolhouses report.

The year-long assessment commissioned by the School Building Authority and completed by Jacobs Engineering, a technical contracting firm, predicts it will take $627.6 million in construction and repairs to make the school meet current safety standards. It will take about $2.2 billion to bring schools across the state to ideal operational conditions.

Since January 2016, 306 school campuses were assessed  by architects, engineers and specialists for this evaluation. Five levels of priority costs are identified in the report: the first two are facility deficiencies with potential for building code violations, and the following three levels are more aesthetic changes.

“Most of our classrooms and school buildings haven’t been improved in 25 years,” Governor Raimondo said in a press release. “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.”

The quality of a school’s design and the amount of funding the state provides for it reflects “the priority we place on quality learning environments,” said Hanna Gallo, education committee chairwoman for the R.I. Senate and the senate’s appointee to the School Building Task Force. “Children can’t reach their potential in cold classrooms or under leaky roofs.”

In conjunction with the report, Raimondo signed an executive order Sept. 15 creating a new commission, the Rhode Island Schools Task Force, which will develop action steps based on the report and public input. The task force is comprised of legislators, community advocates and school professionals and is co-chaired by RIDE Commissioner Ken Wagner and State Treasurer Seth Magaziner.  The task force plans to turn the action steps to the governor  in December.

“RIDE will continue to support districts in their efforts to modernize and improve school infrastructure, with a renewed emphasis on projects that have emerged as most urgently needed for the safety, well-being and success of our students,” Wagner said in a press release.

“We know where the report stands,” said Catherine Rolfe, deputy press secretary for the governor. “It’s clear we need a once in a lifetime investment, but we need to figure out where we can find the money.”

The next step for the state is public engagement, said Meg Geoghegan, communications officer for the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In technical briefings, RIDE will consult with experts about the details of the report.

Raimondo will hold a series of community forums in October to solicit feedback from communities across Rhode Island. This, in conjunction with RIDE’s technical briefings, will help Raimondo define investment priorities in school facilities renovation, before proposing her budget for 2019.

Raimondo will also embark on a walking tour where she plans to talks to educators, parents and students about school facilities. On Wednesday, Raimondo visited East Providence High School, an example of a school whose facilities have potential but lack sufficient funding, Rolfe said, citing a large swimming pool at the school that has remained empty for six years.

In some towns, implementation of Raimondo’s plan will be primarily state-led, but, in Providence, implementation will look different. The city of Providence owns the Providence Public School’s buildings, therefore any renovations to Providence schools will have to be a collaborative solution between the city and the district, said Laura Hart, director of communication for Providence Public Schools.

“Prior to the report coming out this was already a priority for the city of Providence, and they were looking for solutions,” Hart said.

At last April’s All In Summit, a city event hosted by Mayor Jorge Elorza that focused on bettering Providence schools, school infrastructure improvements were identified as one of the highest priorities.

“The majority of Providence Public School buildings require significant attention and investment to meet the educational needs of our students,” wrote Christopher Maher, superintendent of Providence Public Schools, in an email to The Herald. According to the state’s report, the schools most in need in Providence are Hope High School, Mount Pleasant High School and Classical High School; the bulk of money for improvements needed throughout Providence will go toward priority two and three renovations.

Elorza announced in August that the city plans to dedicate at least $400 million toward repairs for Providence schools, the Providence Journal reported.

“The Mayor is committed to addressing this issue at the city level and took a step in addressing this issue by looking at options for the city and launching a community centered planning process for these investments that will rely on input from educators, students and parents,” wrote Victor Morente, press secretary for Elorza, in an email to The Herald.

The city is eligible to borrow $400 million over the next decade for school improvements, Morente wrote. “The mayor also committed to exploring and leveraging public and private partnerships to maximize every dollar invested in schools,” Morente wrote.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Providence Public School system owns its own buildings, therefore any renovations to Providence schools will have to be a collaborative solution between the state and the district. In fact, the city of Providence owns the Providence Public School buildings, thus any renovation must be a collaboration between the city and the district. The Herald regrets the error.

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