PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Calling it her “top priority this year,” Gov. Gina Raimondo testified in support of a school bonding measure Thursday that would ask voters to approve $250 million to repair or rebuild aging school buildings across the state.
Raimondo spoke before the House Finance Committee, which is considering the borrowing plan as part of Raimondo’s budget proposal. She asked lawmakers to put it on the ballot this November. If passed, the $250 million would be borrowed over five years.
“It’s time that we come together and do the right thing to rebuild our schools,” Raimondo told the committee.
Raimondo, a Democrat, typically saves in-person testimony for high-priority agenda items. The last time she testified before a committee was in 2017, for her Rhode Island Promise scholarship program that would give two years of free college to Rhode Islanders. A scaled-back version of her original proposal ended up becoming law.
The school buildings proposal would combine the $250 million from the bonds with existing state and city funds, for a total of $1 billion invested in school buildings over the five years, according to the governor’s office.
In her testimony, Raimondo brought up a recent cold snap that led to burst pipes and other weather-related damage at schools earlier this winter, forcing some to close for multiple days.
“This is about making sure that every single school in every single community is warm, safe and dry,” Raimondo said, adding that the crumbling buildings are not unique to urban schools.
”There are schools falling apart in every single school district,” she said. “It’s East Greenwich, it’s Johnston, it’s Providence, it’s Portsmouth.”
The school construction plan came out of a task force formed last year after the Jacobs consulting firm released a study showing $627 million is needed to reach the “warm, safe and dry” criteria for Rhode Island public schools. $2.2 billion would be needed to bring schools to good condition.
“There is a cost to not doing more and not investing up front,” said General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who co-chaired the School Buidling Task Force with Education Commissioner Ken Wagner.
“Our kids deserve it, our families deserve it, our teachers deserve it,” Magaziner told the committee Thursday. “And we don’t want to wait anymore.”
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza also testified before the committee, describing buckets collecting dripping rainwater at some Providence schools, and students bundled in winter coats due to poor insulation and dysfunctional heating systems.
”We are not investing in [kids] in the way that we should,” Elorza said.
Bill Murray, the mayor of Cumberland and vice-president of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, also testified in support.
“Safe and clean schools are important for our children,” Murray said. He lamented the fact that school building maintenance has been neglected over the years, leading to the problem at hand.
House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, who is also running for the Republican nomination for the governor, expressed skepticism about the funding for the school buildings plan.
“It’s not responsible,” she said in an interview with Eyewitness News. “We need to find other ways to budget.”
“Absolutely, we need to repair schools,” Morgan said. “I think there are better ways to do it.” She suggested foregoing $23 million in proposed bonds to help construct a new PawSox stadium, and putting the money towards school buildings instead.
Morgan also said she is introducing a bill to exempt school building repair and replacement from state prevailing wage requirements.
The school buildings plan is part of the budget being considered by the General Assembly for the fiscal year starting July 1. If passed, the bond would be on the ballot for voters this November.