Aerial view of Rogers High School. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License

School building projects, many strongly suggested by a Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) report identifying schools statewide needing billions of dollars in repairs or replacement to become safe and current, are still “moving forward,” according to Christine Lopes Metcalfe, executive director of RIDE’S School Building Authority.

But they are moving forward in a COVID-19 environment in which RIDE and school districts remain focused on distance learning, the new educational reality, but recognize the uncertainty that’s ahead.

Many of these projects were sparked by a $250 million bond issue approved by voters statewide, after the Jacobs report identified Rhode Island schools in need of nearly $630 million in repairs and replacement just to become safe, and more than $3 billion over the next few years for schools to be safe and prepared for 21st century learning. 

That $250 million bond supplements annual state aid of more than $80 million, Metcalfe says. School districts, under the bond, are vying for incentive payments above the state guarantee of 35 percent reimbursement. 

The incentives can add millions of dollars in state aid, reducing local bond issues, but still leaving communities with a heavy financial burden. In Westerly, last year, voters rejected a $70 million plus bond issue, and officials have refiled with the state again while re-working its proposal to be less expensive.

Newport, with Rogers High School identified as the high school in poorest condition in the state, has proposed a $112 million project, not including debt payments. The project would include a new high school and addition to Pell Elementary School. Even if state aid reached 50 percent, the local price tag, including debt service, would exceed $100 million.

The challenges are considerable.

“Everybody is trying to navigate and figure this out” Metcalfe says. “Our hope is we’ll continue the construction projects … We want to hear from the communities. We’ll know more in the summer.”

Staying the course means construction continues on a new high school in East Providence, and RIDE provided feedback to Newport officials after they filed a stage two application. If everything goes as planned, Newport is likely to include a school bond on its November ballot. 

But what COVID-19 means, however, is uncertainty

Cities, towns, the state, businesses, and individuals are facing significant financial challenges. Unemployment is at its highest in years, businesses are shuttered, the federal government is handing out trillions of dollars in aid, tax revenues are significantly lower, many individuals are standing in line for free food, people who have never done that before.

“I believe time will tell as this rolls out,” says Newport Schools Superintendent Dr. Colleen Jermain.  “I am hoping soon Newport will have a process to continue discussions on the financing of a bond, understanding our priorities now have shifted rightfully so to the pandemic. RIDE has informed us … they are expecting us to have all our supplemental work to them by April 13th. They are still on the path forward for school construction and incentives for districts.”

In Westerly, Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Garceau is more pessimistic. I think all building projects and the monies needed to fund them are going to be very much up in the air for the time being. The damage being done daily to the local and national economy is dwarfing the challenge we faced in ’08 – ‘09 when a school building project moratorium had to be put in place.”