A recent assessment done by the Department of Education in Rhode Island found that communities would have to have a combined total of $1.7 billion to bring all aging schools up to top condition. This would require state, municipal, school leaders and residents to come to a cooperative agreement.
Paul Grimaldi of The Providence Journal writes that the Public Schoolhouse Assessment found that 70% of the state's schools were built between 25-75 years ago and the average school building is 58 years old.
Physical conditions are central to the "equity and adequacy" of schools, said Joseph DaSilva, the state's school construction coordinator. Those attributes are core matters to ensure districts across the state create and maintain high-performing education systems.
Adding to the funding issue is the fact that schools across Rhode Island have excess capacity and enrollments are expected to continue to decline. By 2016-2017 the excess capacity is projected to be at more than 20%. This information comes as a state moratorium on school construction is set to expire June 30 – the end of the current fiscal year.
In 2007 the education department revised school construction regulations to help curb state spending. When these regulations changed construction reimbursements dropped from $182 million to $75 million annually. This has left school districts with little money to spend on roof maintenance, heating and ventilation systems or other infrastructure needs. The only work that has been completed are those that "ensure the "immediate health and safety" of students, staff and visitors."
Since the General Assembly forced the moratorium three years ago more than:
$600 million in repairs, energy efficiency work and other school improvements have been deferred, DaSilva told a Senate task force. When the moratorium lifts, schools will apply to the education department for roughly $50 million in school construction projects.
One option districts have to reduce costs is to become more energy efficient. The office of Energy Resources promotes this through a partnership with National Grid.
A new school in Aquidneck Island is serving as an example of an energy efficient operation. The building is set up for sustainability and boasts "green" building principles that maximize energy efficiency by using renewable power that minimizes its carbon footprint. The school uses 20% less water than older buildings and saves 47% on energy costs. The roof-top solar thermal system provides the school with 20% of their hot water and 50% of the schools construction waste materials were recycled.
There are other ways besides energy efficiency that districts can save money, among them is by creating capital reserve accounts, spending from which is reimbursed, in part, by the state, DaSilva said. Such accounts could limit the need for districts to fund building projects through bond issues that come with interest charges."We're paying too much to our friends in the banking industry," he said.
He proposed that Rhode Island create a statewide capital reserve account from which the districts could draw money for maintenance work. Stakeholders agree that solving the school condition problem is one that government and community leaders will have to work together to overcome.