Taking on debt for schools a good idea only if R.I. is smart about it

According to a 2016 study, more than 100 debt-issuing entities in the state accounted for a total of more than $10.5 billion in debt that all or a portion of the state’s taxpayers are on the hook for. By any measure, that is a lot.

But when we come to the issue of public debt in Rhode Island, we must understand what the debt is for before we decry the size of it, especially as Gov. Gina M. Raimondo pushes a plan to spend upward of $500 million to repair much of the state’s failing school infrastructure.

Do we need to fix schools in the state? Without a doubt. But can we afford it?

Using a home mortgage as an example, if you take out too large a loan for that dream house, you may end up cash-strapped and unable to handle an emergency that comes up, as they often do.

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So too must Rhode Island consider not only how much additional debt will limit its ability to respond to pressing needs in the future but also its ability to be disciplined about future conventional financial needs.

If the Ocean State wants to improve the quality of its educational resources, it must make sure that its children are learning in high-quality school structures. But it must also forgo future spending that might be nice to have but which put the state in a poor financial position to handle emergencies that demand action, say a hurricane that decides to land here and wreak havoc.

Can Rhode Island be a savvy user of public debt and keep its penchant for overspending under control? That question must be answered as part of the process of rebuilding our schools.