Massachusetts General Assembly
By PROVIDENCE, R.I. Sen. Ryan W. Pearson is proposing using a small percentage of the states 7-percent sales tax to pay for school construction in an effort to encourage school districts to maintain their buildings rather than wait until they are falling apart.Pearson, D-Cumberland, proposed a similar measure last year as chair of the Senate task force on school construction.The new bill, submitted Wednesday, would allocate .57 percent of one percentage point of the sales tax to pay for school construction. The percentage would increase by .04 each year until a 1 percentage point is reached in about 10 years.No state has figured out how to do this, Pearson said, referring to the financing of school construction. The Rhode Island plan is similar to one developed by Massachusetts, which dedicates 1 percent of the states sales tax to help pay for school facility improvements.In fiscal 2016, this proposal would generate $81.4 million, according to Pearson. The annual increases would add an additional $5.7 million.The goal is to reduce the states dependence on costly bonds and allow districts to fund smaller projects such as a new roof or boiler.Were not helping cities and towns maintain their buildings, Pearson said, were only helping them when theyre reaching a crisis.Rhode Islands 276 public schools are aging rapidly and, at the current rate, it would cost $1.8 billion to bring them up to good condition, according to a state study released last year. In fact, the average age of a school building in Rhode Island is 58 years old and several were built before World War I.The General Assembly in July extended a three-year moratorium on new construction until May 2015 to give leaders time to figure out how to pay for major school renovations. Superintendents say that every year the moratorium is in place, crucial maintenance and repairs go undone, driving up the cost and making bond referenda less palatable to voters.Pearson thinks he has a solution: charge one agency, the Rhode Island Health and Educational Building Corporation, with assessing and prioritizing the needs of school districts and finding the most cost-efficient methods of financing those needs.Currently, Rhode Island has a one-size-fits-all funding system for school projects. Pearson wants an agency that can respond nimbly to smaller proposals, one that offers a variety of financing methods to meet different types of projects.RIHEBC already exists as the financing arm for school construction projects that are vetted by the Rhode Island Department of Education. The agency also handles bonding for nonprofits such as Lifespan.The agency would have the following members: the general treasurer, the director of administration (who serves as the chair), the education commissioner and four members of the public with expertise in education, health, construction or finance. These members would be appointed by the governor with the Senates approval.This is a huge priority for the Senate, Pearson said, adding that Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed has identified this as a major concern.General Treasurer Seth Magaziner said, As a former schoolteacher who worked every day in an old, dilapidated building, where I saw firsthand the negative impact poor infrastructure has on students productivity and growth, I support the creation of a school building authority to repair our broken schools. The health and safety of our students must be a top priority and I look forward to working with the governor and General Assembly leaders to advance this important issue.Governor Raimondo proposed a similar funding solution during her campaign. In her Vision for K-12 Education, she proposed dedicating a half of a percent per dollar from the sales tax to reduce the states dependence on bonds and to reduce municipal debt. She cited Massachusetts approach as an example of how states can save millions in interest costs.