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School facilities are the foundation for learning
By Lisa DiMartino / March 21, 2018 /   Loading Disqus...

School facilities are the foundation for learning; without buildings that are warm, safe, and dry, learning the abstract concepts of academics can become more challenging. Improving student learning experiences is one of three strategies we are focused on through our strategic initiative, Educational Success. This includes a commitment to improving the quality of educational environments and reducing the disparities across districts and between facilities.

In 2014, the Council of the Great City Schools found that students in deteriorating school buildings score between 5 to 11 percentile points lower on standardized achievement tests than students in modern buildings, after controlling for income level. Numerous other studies have also shown that the condition of facilities impacts student performance as well as student attendance. 

Additional studies have examined the relationship of school construction on teacher perception and retention. For example, teacher satisfaction is influenced by the condition of the school building, having a direct effect on teacher morale, sense of effectiveness, and teacher attendance. Furthermore, the physical condition of a school facility can be an important predictor of a teacher’s decision to stay in the profession. In some cases, the poor physical condition of the school’s physical plant was a bigger deterrent to staying in a position than a dissatisfaction with pay. Ultimately, warm, safe, and dry school environments are an important component of successful teaching and learning.

Rhode Island is no exception to the challenges of deferred maintenance being felt across the country. In 2017, The Rhode Island Department of Education identified more than $627 million in much-needed repairs and improvements to public school buildings. As a result, the Rhode Island School Building Task Force was convened. Foundation President & CEO Neil Steinberg served on the Task Force, along with other stakeholders from across a variety of sectors. While school operating costs are funded across federal, state, and local budgets, school construction costs are largely the responsibility of local sources with a level of state reimbursement. This system makes it harder for poorer communities to secure the funds needed to build new facilities and renovate old ones, which adds to significant costs down the line. Locally, as well as nationally, this funding structure has led to many communities postponing millions of dollars’ worth of routine maintenance costs for years at a time.

This traditional funding structure has influenced the Task Force’s recommendations encouraging Rhode Islanders to re-evaluate our current structure and look to invest more, invest smarter, and invest more efficiently. Some of the specific recommendations include:

  • Create a system of “bonuses” to increase the state’s share of construction costs, with districts eligible to earn up to 20 bonus points. Ultimately, a district whose reimbursement rate is currently 35% can be bumped up to 55% by focusing on projects that: address Priority 1 and 2 deficiencies, enhance the teaching of STEM, early childhood education, or career and technical education, and prioritize cost effectiveness and space utilization.
  • Seek referendums on the 2018 and 2022 ballots for authorization to issue $250 million of General Obligation bonds for public school construction and repair over a five year period.
  • Fund a portion of the state’s share for all projects using a “pay as you go” basis rather than a reimbursement basis. This will allow municipalities and the state to avoid unnecessary interest expense associated with municipal bonding.
  • Require that minimum annual spending for maintenance be at least 3% of the replacement value of the school in accordance with best practices. In addition, raise the threshold of maintenance spending from 50% to 66.7%, to avoid a potential loss of state aid.

Adoption of these recommendations can improve the state’s funding and approvals processes, and streamline school building improvement efforts, while promoting positive impacts for students and teachers.

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