The Rhode Island School Building Task Force has recommended issuing $500 million general obligation bonds for public school construction and repair over 10 years.

A report by the task force, which General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and commissioner of elementary and secondary education Ken Wagner chaired, called for proposing the first bonds to voters in a 2018 referendum.

Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner
“We cannot afford to wait any longer to take action,” said Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner.

This bonding level is less than half the state's total capacity to issue bonds over the next decade, according to an inaugural debt affordability study the Rhode Island Public Finance Management Board completed earlier this year. While other states regularly issue bonds to support school construction, Rhode Island has not done so for more than 20 years, said Magaziner.

“We cannot afford to wait any longer to take action,” said Magaziner.

The report referenced the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which uses state-level bonding to fund the commonwealth’s share of school construction spending.

Rhode Island previously used state-level bonding to fund pre-kindergarten to Grade 12 facilities, but has not put a related bonding proposal to referendum since 1994, when bonds were authorized for the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technology Center in Providence.

The debt affordability study, Rhode Island’s first since 1999, found that the state has the capacity to issue about $1.2 billion of state tax-supported debt over 10 years while remaining safely within responsible borrowing guidelines.

“While we live in an era of constrained budgets and competing priorities, the safety and wellbeing of children must be paramount,” said the report.

Gov. Gina Raimondo convened the 19-member task force in September after an independent study commissioned by the state’s Department of Education – the so-called Schoolhouses Report -- identified more than $2.2 billion in deficiencies in the state's 306 public schools, more than $600 million of which are immediate “warm, safe, and dry” needs.

The report also found that the state's current level of support is causing the cost of repairing these deficiencies to spike by an average of $70 million per year.

Additionally, the Task Force recommends new statewide requirements to ensure proper maintenance of buildings after repair, and new policies to limit construction cost overruns.

The 15 task force members who attended Wednesday’s meeting unanimously approved the final recommendations, with one abstention.

House Finance Committee chairman and task force member Marvin Abney, D-Newport, had previously informed the group that he would abstain from the final vote out of deference to his committee's responsibility to consider the bonds in the upcoming legislative session.

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Paul Burton

Paul Burton

Paul Burton is the Northeast Regional Editor for The Bond Buyer and the author of the book "Tales from the Newsrooms." He is a sought-after public speaker and has appeared on radio and TV shows, including former CBS News White House correspondent Sharyl Attkisson’s public-affairs program, “Full Measure.”