Panel Recommends Changes for School Construction

Apr 17, 2014

Rhode Island's School Housing Aid Task Force wants to set aside 1 percent of the state sales tax for school construction.

The panel has been working on a series of recommendations as the state prepares to lift a moratorium on  school construction projects.

Other recommendations include the creation of a quasi-public agency to oversee school construction funding, assess facilities statewide and move away from a funding model heavily dependent on bonds.

Many education leaders are anxiously anticipating the release of additional state funds, after several years of holding off on projects except those considered absolutely necessary. A study from the State Department of Education found roughly $600 million in backlogged school construction proposals, and nearly $2 billion in total school upgrades and renovations needed around the state.

The housing aid panel has recommended incentives for districts to share services and close school buildings as Rhode Island faces a projected decline in the number of school-aged children. Previous efforts to close schools and consolidate  services have met with resistance, although several districts have shuttered buildings in recent years, including Providence, Warwick and Newport.

Closing buildings can be a double edged sword. Providence shut down a middle school and is now facing criticism that its middle school classrooms are overcrowded. In Newport, an unexpected surge in elementary school enrollment complicated plans for a single, consolidated elementary school, which opened last year.

Still, many education leaders say the projected declines in enrollment are real, and districts must prepare.

The Housing Aid Task Force was created to review school construction funding procedures to make sure state aid is used wisely. The panel also reviewed concerns about the magnitude of upgrades needed to provide a 21st century education.

“With RIDE estimating a total of $1.8 billion of construction needed, we certainly had quite the issue to tackle,” said Senator Ryan W. Pearson, a Cumberland democrat who chaired the housing aid task force.