Providence City Council moves forward on $125M school construction bond

Updated at 8:13 p.m.

PROVIDENCE – The City Council in a special meeting Wednesday unanimously approved a first vote to advance a proposed $125 million bond referendum to help the city continue to make improvements in its school infrastructure. 

The bond, the council said prior to the meeting, builds upon the city’s 10-year commitment to investing up to $400 million in school infrastructure made by Mayor Jorge O. Elorza since 2017. A second meeting will take place either on Aug. 9 or Aug. 10, according to Council President John J. Igliozzi, to have further discussion and vote for possible passage. 

Council members also hope RIDE and PPSD officials clarify for them by the next meeting various matters about the district’s process in why certain schools are selected for renovation or new construction over others, and other transparency-related issues, a point that many councilors raised during the 80-minute meeting Wednesday. If or when the council offers its blessing, the bond will be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot for city voters to choose in favor of or against to issue additional funds to fix, or build new, city school buildings. 

Officials from the Providence Public School District, including Providence School Superintendent Javier Montanez, and the R.I. Department of Education – which currently controls PPSD – offered councilors a presentation relative to the bond, how much money the district has utilized thus far for school projects and what is needed going forward. Zach Scott, PPSD’s deputy superintendent for operations, told the council that approximately $300 million has been committed for both planning for future projects and current ongoing school construction work in the city, similar to what RIDE outlined back in February in its 2022 School Building Authority Report. 

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Some noted projects being financed by the $300 million include the $44 million demolition and replacing of Spaziano Elementary School, $35 million in renovations to Classical High School, $21 million to renovate Hope High School, a $75 million project to transform the former St. Joseph’s Hospital into a Pre-K-through-8 school and a year-long $21 million renovation to William D’Abate Elementary School. 

Scott says that approximately $700 million in renovation and construction work is needed to meet basic conditions within the buildings, let alone the state-of-the-art facilities the district desires. 

“While we’re still thankful for the work and investments we’re doing, more needs to be done,” Montanez said. “We’re fixing decades of neglect. This [new] bond is the next most important part … to create a district that our students deserve.” 

The new $125 million bond, Scott said, would not be issued until the first $300 million is complete – he anticipates it will be done by the 2026 fiscal year. The money would be used to create at least one new school, Scott said, and “significant renovations” throughout the district. Also, Scott noted that the district is striving to have close to 50% of its school buildings being “considered new” by the 2027-28 school year. He noted that in 2019, about 5% of the city’s school buildings were like new. 

Additionally, the city would be eligible a 91% reimbursement rate, or $114 million from RIDE, from the bond, leaving just $11 million in local investment, Scott said. City Chief Financial Officer Lawrence J. Mancici told the council the net cost to the city would only be less than $1 million once the reimbursements are received against the debt service payments. 

“Our opinion, this is clearly a beneficial project for the city,” Mancini said. 

However, it is unclear what school buildings in the city would be chosen to be fixed with the new bond money if approved, and multiple councilors said schools located within their wards are currently in poor condition. Councilors also raised questions about how RIDE and PPSD chooses which buildings need to be addressed. Of the 37 schools within the district, 10 thus far are specifically earmarked for the first $300 million in school construction bonds. 

Mario Carreno, RIDE’s chief operating officer, said the district’s school building committee, a mix, he said, of city councilors, school leaders and community members, use a methodology to select schools to fix. He said with $700 million in fixes needed, the district “can’t hit them all” at once, Carreno said, but the additional bond would address future projects in time. 

Ward 3 Councilor Nirva LaFortune said while she’s happy that Hope High School’s auditorium is being updated, the rest of the building has classrooms that, she said, are “falling apart.” LaFortune said it would be preferable for RIDE and PPSD to provide a “more-detailed report” outlining the air quality index for all city schools and what is being done to other sections of school buildings in addition to prioritized fixes. 

“I don’t know if you included community members and students in this process to provide additional feedback as you gone along, that would be great as well,” LaFortune said. “I think we’re only getting half of the details and not getting a full scope on how these dollars are being used on our school buildings.” 

Ward 2 Councilor Helen D. Anthony emphasized that there needs to be “accountability” and a “clear understanding” from RIDE and the district on how they decide on which schools to address, as well as provide an ongoing status of current projects to ensure funds are spent in the right way. 

(Update: Story updated through out following city council’s vote)

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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