“We have a crisis with our facilities,” said state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner about the state of school buildings in Rhode Island during the student question and answer portion of his State of Education speech Monday night.
A student from Chariho posed the question. He said his school resembles a prison. Then there’s Providence. In April, Central High School had to cancel classes for a day because of mold. Later in the month, at Hope High School, a cafeteria ceiling tile crumbled to the ground and a student promptly posted pictures to Facebook.
The Fix Our Schools Now! Coalition, organizing around the issue since 2016, keeps tabs on damage and disrepair to public schools at this Facebook page. “We cannot claim to care about academic performance if we force students, teachers, and staff into buildings that look like this every day,” said one post.
The Department of Education will release a report in June detailing the damage statewide, Wagner said. RIDE also plans to put a bond initiative on the next statewide ballot to get more state funding to address the problem.
“It will take some time, but if we focus on chipping away at it,” he said, “and really invest where we have the capacity to invest, we’ll make it happen.”
Rectifying the problem will takes years, according to Wagner. “We can’t do this all at once,” he said. “The number is just too big. Even if we maxed out our bond capacity solely on this initiative, which we won’t be able to do because there are other competing priorities in other areas of government, even then it would take us time.”
He didn’t want to put a price tag on the overall initiative, but he was comfortable saying, “it’s not billions of dollars.” A 2012 state report estimated it would cost $493 million to fix dilapidated schools, the Providence Journal recently reported.
Wagner said the disrepair can be found throughout Rhode Island.
“It’s everywhere,” he said. “It’s statewide. You can just drive around and within two hours you will see the examples. You can go in the same community and one school will be crisp, clean, light, airy, exciting and another school will look like a basement.”