Stop the band-aids, let's build new Warwick schools
To the Editor:
Let’s build new schools in Warwick! Heresy, you say? You contend that Warwick taxpayers can’t afford or won’t approve building new schools instead of repairing existing schools? Maybe you’re wrong. Let’s look at the real costs involved in both repairing and replacing our schools and determine what the different outcomes will be.
First, some background. Warwick schools are, on average, 62 years old – with one school over 100 years old. These schools are falling apart. Any structural engineer will tell you that school buildings as old as ours can’t really be repaired and maintained. Yes, band-aids can be applied and uncomfortable occupancy not conducive to learning can be extended, but trying to repair these schools equates to pouring money into a hole that will never be filled. These costly band-aids will have to be reapplied every few years as the buildings continue to deteriorate.
The Warwick School Committee asked the City Council and Warwick voters to approve an $85 million bond to finance school repairs; in essence, to fund the application of band-aids. The Council cut the money for the band-aids down to $40 million. The Council offered a half box of band-aids instead of a full box.
The estimated cost to Warwick taxpayers in the form of increased property taxes for the $85 million bond would have been an increase of about $80 per year for a $200,000 home. Unfortunately, whether our taxpayers were to approve $40M or $85M, after only a few short years of continued decay - long before either bond would be paid off, it would then be time for another $40M or $85M bond for more band-aids. Ridiculous!
Why not scratch the Council-approved $40M bond request and work on a different approach for voters to approve in a special election next year. Let’s quadruple the bond from $85M to $340M and build all new schools! Under current state regulations, the state would pay 40 percent of the bill - or $136 million, leaving Warwick taxpayers on the hook for $204 million. Borrowing this amount would increase our average property taxes by $240 per year over the $80 per year under the $85M bond proposal. That’s a cost of about a half-cup of coffee per day for the average homeowner.
Some might argue that we can’t build enough new schools for Warwick’s 9,124 students for only $340 million. Not true. The Rhode Island Department of Education recommends an average of 165 square feet of space for every student, a bit less for elementary schools and a bit more for high schools. That means Warwick needs about 1.5M square feet of building space. The national median cost per square foot for public school buildings in 2014 (last year information is available) is $230 per square foot. Accounting for inflation and the higher cost of building in the northeast, let’s assume a cost of $250 per square foot. At that rate, building new schools in Warwick would cost a total of $375 million. However, if the building contracts were to be awarded to only one or two companies, the size of the contracts and the economy of scale resulting from building several schools at the same time could easily reduce the per square foot cost to the $225 per square foot required to stay within a $340 million budget.
Because of underutilized current schools and the projected decrease in future student enrollment, Warwick wouldn’t have to replace current building on a one-for-one basis. Fewer schools would be built than currently exists. Excess buildings and land would be sold to further reduce costs to taxpayers.
Building three or four new schools per year would result in minimal student displacement and would result in Warwick having all new schools in less than five years.
I’ve lived in Warwick for 23 years after raising my children in Connecticut. I’ve contributed property taxes to our schools every year even without children in the system. That’s the cost of living in a safe, well-run city where providing a high-quality education for our children is the best guarantee of an even more prosperous future for our city.
Would I enjoy paying more in property taxes to finance building new schools for Warwick’s students? Of course not. Indeed, during my years as a columnist for this paper, I railed against excessive, wasteful government spending. But I realize that, ultimately, I will pay more in taxes if the city continues trying to repair our 62-year old, dilapidated schools. Pretty soon, the cost for “band-aid repairs” will exceed the cost of building new schools. Instead of having new schools, we will then have spent $340 million in repairs and will still have ancient schools well beyond their useful stages of life. A senseless waste of taxpayers’ money.
Building all new schools would result in many other salutary effects for Warwick. It would have our city humming with new construction. It would provide countless new jobs. It would increase profits at our ancillary businesses. It would dramatically increase property values in our city. It would make Warwick far more attractive for new businesses. It would dramatically reduce the city’s annual budget for school maintenance. And it would help our schools compete with the Barrington’s and East Greenwich’s of Rhode Island.
In the medical world, it is always considered better to address the underlying cause of an illness or disease instead of just treating the symptoms. In Warwick, we can’t afford to continue treating the symptoms of our decaying school buildings. Instead, we need to attack the cause of this decay and build new schools by approving a bond that would increase our average tax contribution by $240 above the $80 originally anticipated. We really can’t afford not to!