This post first appeared in The Providence Journal on March 15, 2015.
During her inauguration address, Gov. Gina Raimondo issued this challenge: “Today, I ask Rhode Islanders to think differently.” She is right — we do need to think differently, especially about how we invest in the future for our students and their success, including the buildings they sit in regularly.
Rhode Island’s school buildings are in desperate need of repair. The Rhode Island Department of Education estimates that it will take up to $1.8 billion just to bring the existing school buildings into good condition. We have read the news stories about ceiling tiles collapsing in classrooms, roofs leaking and countless safety and fire code violations. Such conditions are simply unacceptable.
Meanwhile, Rhode Island’s economy is still lagging the nation. The state ranks 46th in the country in unemployment and the loss of jobs in the construction industry is a big reason why. Some 5,000 fewer Rhode Islanders are employed in the construction industry today than in 2007.
The Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now just released a report, “Repair our School Buildings, Repair the Economy.” It explains how making new investments in public school buildings, in a way that’s both efficient and effective, can be a win-win for Rhode Island. The report focuses on how investments in school facilities can strengthen both the state’s schools and its economy.
Investments in construction create almost as many jobs in industries supported by construction as they do in the industry itself. According to a report by Bryant University, for every 100 construction industry jobs created in Rhode Island, another 83 non-construction jobs are produced by the resulting economic activity. If Rhode Island’s overall construction industry recovered to its 2001 output level, we could expect to see approximately 9,880 new jobs: 5,436 in direct construction industry employment and 4,444 in sectors supported by the construction industry.
While school buildings are one part of the overall construction landscape, evidence from other states shows the impact new investments in school housing aid can have on a state economy. Massachusetts, for example, invested $6.78 billion in school housing aid between 2005 and 2014. This investment added $7.76 billion to the state’s gross domestic product, created 9,565 jobs per year (half in the construction industry and half in sectors supported by the construction industry) and generated $412 million in state tax revenue. New Jersey made $5.4 billion in facilities construction investments between 2008 and 2013, generating a projected $3.3 billion in gross domestic product, 9,357 jobs per year and $159 million in state and local tax revenue.
Rhode Island’s investment doesn’t need to be in the multi-billion dollar range to have a significant impact, but the investment needs to start now. In 2011, the General Assembly imposed a school construction moratorium that was set to expire in 2014. Because of budget constraints, the moratorium was extended for another year and is set to expire this May. We cannot continue to kick the can down the road while our students sit in facilities that are crumbling around them.
Lifting the moratorium alone is not enough. This is an opportunity to think differently about how we finance and prioritize school building projects. The significant investment needed to ensure high-quality learning environments across the state requires an entity that clearly connects the state’s educational and financial arms. Massachusetts recognized that and created an independent school building authority in 2004 and made the state treasurer its board chair.
We should also consider policy changes to ensure a predictable and sustainable program for the future — policy changes such as: identifying a dedicated revenue stream, transitioning to a pay-as-you build financing model, creating new funding mechanisms to help public schools finance projects, designing facilities with innovation and blended learning in mind and treating all public school children equitably.
Making smart policy changes while lifting the moratorium will boost our construction industry, reduce unemployment and support dozens of economic sectors while also letting Rhode Island’s children have high-quality learning environments. Thinking differently about the way we invest in school facilities is a win-win proposition. Let’s put Rhode Islanders back to work and students back in safe school facilities.