Rhody Votes 2012: ballot question 3 would renovate RIC


Question Three on this November's ballot asks voters to decide yes or no on whether the state should issue $50 million in bonds to help pay for renovations at Rhode Island College. The bulk of the funds would go to upgrading two major classroom buildings that haven't been updated since the 1960s. And the rest would help expand and modernize the college's nursing school - whose 450 students occupy a single floor in the Fogarty Life Science building. It would be tough for anyone to argue they don't need more space.

"Here is the student lounge. This is our space for 450 students. And you can see that it's very limited."

Nursing school dean Jane Williams leads a tour through a gathering area that could hold 30 or 40 students at most. Then she peeks inside a class in session.

"I'm going to take you through this lab area," says Williams.

In some classrooms, it wouldn't be polite to stick your tongue out. Not here. A student is happy to say "Ah!"

"I take my tongue depressor and I'm going to look inside. A lot of times I'm going to use my pen light. It's awful dark in there, so we want to take a peek," the instructor tells the student on whom she's demonstrating.

Dean Jane Williams tiptoes past the demonstration in progress and into a simulation lab. Inside, a disturbingly life-like mannequin lies in an actual hospital bed, next to a real heart monitor, oxygen valves, even an IV tree.

"This is the simulation area, and in nursing education simulation's a really important new way of teaching, because our graduates, in order to go into a place like Rhode Island Hospital, need to have practice in the skills they're going to be doing in those settings," Williams says.

Students who've just learned how to use the tongue depressor will get to practice on this faux patient. But they'll have to take turns. And Williams says they had to carve a chunk out of the skills classroom just to create this lab and the one next to it. And since nearly every nursing skills class requires practice in a 'sim lab', fitting everyone in has become a challenge. There's just one other 'sim lab,' for pediatrics, across the hall. A few faculty offices, a conference room. And...

"You've seen the school of nursing. We have one classroom designated to us, which is this classroom. It's a computer classroom," says Williams.

She says her school would use about $6 million from the bond, if the measure passes. They'd like to expand the building into the parking lot. Add a bathroom - since there's only one right now. And they'd upgrade and add simulation areas. The rest of the bond money would go to the Gaige Hall and Craig Lee classroom buildings. Independent consultants who helped the school create a 10-year master facilities plan ranked all three buildings in poor condition, in need of some pretty basic upgrades right away-including ramps and elevators for disabled students. Not surprisingly, there's pretty widespread support for passing question three on this November's ballot. And a big majority of state lawmakers voted in favor of the budget bill to put it on the ballot. But $50 million is still a lot of money in lean times. Can we afford it? State budget officer Tom Mullaney takes the long view.

"So we're not issuing debt for some short term use. We're issuing it for something that is going to be around for longer than when we pay off the debt," says Mullaney.

Which would be at a fixed rate over 20 years. Mullaney says the state has been carrying about $100 million in total bond debt every year. But that's about to go down $40 million because of a new strategy to pay for transportation projects.

"So as long as we're not issuing more than what we're paying off, we're not really expanding our debt."

Plus, Rhode Island law requires the state to pay back bond holders before anything else. So we couldn't default. Still, a conservative minority doubts the wisdom of incurring new debt now, says Mike Stenhouse, with the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

"From a taxpayers' perspective and a state economy perspective, really, should now be the time to spend more money on things that don't increase our economic climate or add jobs to the economy?"

RIC administrators think it is. They say the bond is an investment in the state because so many students come from Rhode Island and stay when they graduate. In fact, the measure has struck quite the chord for school spirit.

"Yes on number three It' s a 50 million bond for R-I-C! Vote yes on number three !"

If you've never heard a song about a bond measure on a ballot, that makes at least two of us.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@ripr.org.