An Analogy for Lack of School Building Maintenance


WPRI’s Dan McGowan lays out an analogy for Rhode Island’s lack of school repairs in an interesting Twitter thread:

Thread: I see a lot of folks asking the similar versions of the same question. How can we have let schools our schools go into such despair? Here’s a not-perfect explanation.

I drive a 2015 Hyundai. It’s not going to win any races or fancy car awards, but it gets me from point A to point B, is awesome on gas mileage and connects to my iphone so I can blast Jadakiss and A Boogie wit da Hoodie as loud as I want.

Also, I’d imagine the upgrade from my 2001 Ford was as refreshing as going from Mount Pleasant High to the beautiful facility at PCTA.

While I try to keep up with car maintenance, I let things slip every now and then. If I brought my car to a mechanic tomorrow, I bet they could find around $1,500 in problems. Since I’m a reporter, I can afford about $300 in repairs. So fix the tires, but skip the filter change.

After that, I’ll have $1,200 in needed repairs, but I’ll put it off for a while. But at some point, there’s a good chance I’ll hit one of those wonderful Providence potholes and damage something under the hood. Add $500 to the tab without touching the other needs.

Also, recently I saw the same exact car that I own on 195, except it had this sweet blue racing stripe. I MUST have that racing stripe, no matter what it costs. Add it to the tab.

This process will repeat itself again and again over the years, because that’s what happens with cars. (Also, I have zero knowledge of cars and I’ve never a seen a Hyundai with a racing stripe.)

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Now, back to school repairs. Think of that $1,500 as the Jacobs report findings for School X. Think of the $300 for tires as the standard repairs School X can afford. Think of the $1,200 as the running tab for everything else.

Think of the pothole as the random thing that goes wrong on any given day in any school. Think of the blue racing stripe as the new football scoreboard Councilperson A or School Board member B demands.

That’s how this happened to schools throughout Rhode Island. END.

No doubt, this is a significant part of the dynamic, but I think it comes after something else that McGowan doesn’t mention, and which I’d propose as the more fundamental issue.  I’ll put it in terms of McGowan’s metaphor:  It turns out that his income is more than enough to be able to afford all necessary maintenance and repairs every year.  The problem is that his income isn’t growing very quickly, but the people on whose services he relies use political power to force him to pay them more than you can afford — and more every year, beyond his income growth — and that’s why he has to cut corners in your repairs and maintenance.

Our crumbling infrastructure is in large part a legacy of our heavy unionization.  Every year, an increasing portion of local dollars is absorbed into contracts, leaving less money for maintenance for which the people are already taxed.  As a double-whammy, the maintenance itself climbs in cost not only when done by government employees, but also when government forces itself to comply with laws for the benefit of private-sector unions, like prevailing wage.

  • Northern Exposure

    And that’s why the state added a 3% of budget mandate for capital/maintenance spending on facilities. Because, despite all of the love of local control, the General Assembly has castrated the local boards. Deprived of any ability to control personnel costs and lacking the national standard of state support, the locals are forced into making bad decisions and leaving the buildings to rot. They know that eventually the buildings will fall down and the state will be forced to step up. It’s just the way this state works.

  • Mike678

    Not an issue. Just borrow and pass the debt on to the next generation.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    Is there any significance to a group of SAAB, a defunct car, being pictured?

    • Justin Katz

      Just a picture I had of a car that wasn’t very well maintained!

  • Monique Chartier

    “Every year, an increasing portion of local dollars is
    absorbed into contracts, leaving less money for maintenance for which
    the people are already taxed.”

    That’s exactly right. (Thank you for this post, Justin). And the evidence that this happened is that teacher pay in Rhode Island is in the top 20% nationally. For decades, local politicians have been far more interested in getting themselves re-elected by agreeing to very generous contracts than in doing the right thing by the children (and teachers) by spending some of their limited budget on physical plant.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    I think a good example could be drawn from Attleboro, MA (I have reason to read the local paper). Recently it was determined the 50 year old High School was “beyond repair”. All appearances from the street suggest it is quite salvageable. It is very large and has at least one Olympic pool. The local paper was full of stupid stories about having to obtain circuit breakers from a “junkyard” in California, etc. I have had entire breaker boards replaced, the obvious solution, it can be expensive but not back breaking. As near as I could see, the paper turned a blind eye to everything. It was estimated that repairs would total 50 Million, quite possible. Not so much by the square foot. The School Committee convinced the voters that only a new school would do. So, they voted for a new 270 Million dollar school. The reasoning was that the state’s contribution would “make it cheaper” than preforming repairs which would have to be paid from local taxes. It was obvious, to me, that maintenance had been ignored. My understanding is that it was decided to “defer” maintenance to provide funds for salaries, school buses, etc. So the decision has been made to tear down a salvageable building to replace it with a 270 Million dollar edifice. It will instill “pride” in the students. My thoughts turn to Grand Central, the Empire State, the Chrysler building, all much older, and still operating. I called a “reporter” to suggest he ask these questions, and a few others. The response “those buildings are private sector, the private sector has infinitely more funds than the public sector”. He was quite obviously “on board”. I am not sure he knew what a circuit breaker was, or that the one shown in his paper was a $5.00 item. I’m a taxpayer there.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    Although not mentioned here, “prevailing wage” comes to mind. Here is an article I noticed today
    About mid-way through, it mentions that “prevailing wage” could double, or triple, the cost of the project.

  • Joe Smith

    If you are going to use that analogy, then include a fuller comparison.

    More than likely, the 2015 Hyundai was likely financed (just like the municipal bond likely that paid for the school). Regular loan payments must be made (just like debt service on the bond). Now, you hope and expect both the car and building to be in service beyond the expiration of debt.

    So..what do you do when the debt is paid. One option is to use the funds on other items. Another is to devote a portion (or all) toward prolonging the car (building) by upgrades or save some toward buying a replacement car (or building).

    Hopefully you make an informed decision – value of new features (and needs) in a future car (building) and interest/return you can earn on savings vice the inflation rate of future construction costs versus upgrading (and spending) funds periodically for upgrades. I am not talking bout normal maintenance, but larger capital fixes.

    When you include that aspect, then you question what city and town leaders did when the bonds were retired because even the poorly maintained buildings (and let’s not castigate all local government because some have done better than others) outlasted the iife of the bonds used to finance them. Local school departments would never be allowed to include budget items that say “$1M per year to set aside for a new building” and you rarely see (in RI anyway) the municipal side that has control over the top level spending for schools do that. No, they just will drop another bond.

    Also, in the analogy, we assuming the mechanic inspecting the car is being totally honest about maintenance needs. Let’s face it the “Jacobs report” was partly a political document to support Gina’s push to get big construction projects going for her debt to the laborers. Look at the school construction advisory board – all Democratic supporters of the Gov (or her political hires, etc.). Some items in the Jacobs report are items that are not needed for the school to function or items you wouldn’t fix as opposed to deferring until you replace the building.

    Now, are union contracts and the poor pension results also part of the problem in squeezing local funds? Sure. But so are charters – let’s add *extra* capacity (and building needs/cost) when enrollment is flat/declining. If you were going to approve charters, then it should have been done in a manner to mandate the closing (or repurposing as a charter) of schools. Kind of like having that 2015 Hyundai but also saying one day a week I’m going to rent this other car because I think it will get me to my destination better..but I’m still paying for that Hyundai.