While the future of Warwick’s school buildings remains uncertain, and will remain as such until we get a definite answer from the Warwick City Council on Jan. 22 when they hear further discussion from the School Department on an $85 million bond, it is 100 percent certain that the city cannot afford to do nothing.
Kids at all age levels deserve to go to safe, warm schools where learning can be the top priority – and it is no secret that many of the school buildings in Warwick go beyond a level of simple disrepair.
One needs look no further than the figure the state Department of Education (RIDE) floated out as a result of its statewide assessment on all of Rhode Island’s school buildings – The Jacobs Report – which indicated the city would need to spend about $190 million to get the schools back to an acceptable condition.
Whether that figure is dead-on accurate or not is beside the point. The estimate is approximately two-thirds of the entire city’s budget for FY18 and is about $25 million more than the entire allotted budget for the School Department. It’s a mammoth figure, and it’s only going to balloon within five years to about $239 million if things continue to deteriorate without recourse.
To put it briefly, we have to start now. Whether or not that start is on the scale of the $85 million the school administration is seeking through a bond will be, as it was when the issue was brought up last year, entirely up to the nine members of the city council. It shouldn’t be, since this money would be the responsibility of the entire taxpaying base in Warwick.
Although it is clear and prudent to exercise caution when talking about such a large figure, which will add to the city’s indebtedness and be put on the shoulders of the taxpayers, it is also prudent to not let the demons of the past or personal biases cloud an important judgment that will affect thousands of children who have no real say in what school they go to, or what repairs are made to it.
Some members of the city council have expressed an overt distrust for the school department, stemming from several personal experiences where the then school administration either misled the council or mismanaged moneys appropriated to them. Others have expressed an obstructionist type mentality because schools in their ward face closure in a pending plan to further consolidate schools to counter declining enrollment.
Others on the council have expressed a desire to looking into new construction, without providing an answer about what happens to the other dilapidating schools that will continue to degrade without investment now. Building new would be ideal – and kids deserve new. But the time is not now, as too many schools need immediate work to make them even serviceable in the district. We’re stuck with what we have until we’ve made some strides in the right direction.
Some on the council call it a waste of money to repair old buildings, but this is the reality we find ourselves in. If the $85 million bond is approved, that will enable the school department to fix the direst needs at every school across the district – and they will be publicly and privately held accountable should they deviate from the plan they have established and advertised.
Not to mention, should the school department start to show they’re not following the book, the council can freeze the release of bond money year to year. There is no ultimate lack of oversight, as some on the council have suggested.
While it is understandable to be wary of a department that has wronged you in the past, it is nonsensical to apply that same mentality towards a new administration that has done nothing to abuse the trust, which is necessary to perform as colleagues in city government.
Neither the current superintendent nor the current finance director were around when the last bad blood session over bonding occurred, and it is essential to the future of the city’s children that enough members of the council are able to realize that and do what is right and best for the most people in the city they represent.
The $85 million bond proposal has been a solid proposal that has stayed consistent for almost two years – not counting the exploratory request for $118 million to satisfy a RIDE standard which was more show than substance – and it should be brought to the voters for a final say.
This type of matter should be decided by the voting public who would pay for the bond, not by a small group of individuals with their own human biases and agendas.