The Problem for Public School Buildings…


is that they don’t have a union:

Rhode Island’s 276 public schools are aging rapidly, and, at the current rate, it would cost $1.8 billion to bring them up to good condition, according to a state study.

The General Assembly in July extended a three-year moratorium on new construction until May 2015, to give leaders time to devise a way of paying for major school renovations. But superintendents say that every year the moratorium is in place, crucial maintenance and repairs go undone, driving up the cost and making bond referendums less palatable to voters.

In any given organization, the people who implement the budget will look at the revenue that they expect to bring in versus the needs of the organization (the expenses).  That includes long-term planning, estimating the life of buildings and planning for improvements.

When it comes to government schools, though, the law requires that some money be siphoned off in order to pay a labor union to be constantly advocating to increase the cost of personnel.  Because they are public-sector unions, their advocacy extends to getting people who are sympathetic to their cause in office — both on the school committee that is supposed to negotiate on behalf of taxpayers and in the state legislator and executive roles that set the larger framework in which the government schools operate.

This practice corrupts the ability of school departments and the public to prioritize anything other than higher pay for employees.  Things like ensuring that a century-old building isn’t going to fall apart around the students must be accomplished in addition to the unions’ demands.  Either the extra costs for buildings must be hidden within state-level taxes, or the dollars must be borrowed.

Inevitability is difficult to prove, but it seems likely that Rhode Island’s current predicament — falling into a downward spiral when it comes to building maintenance while also failing to get satisfactory results despite high spending on employees — is inevitable when employees are required to organize to control all sides of every negotiation.

  • brassband

    School buildings can last for a very long time if they are maintained.

    Mt. St. Charles opened its doors 90 years ago, in September 1924, and La Salle's school building turns 90 in 2015. There are buildings at Providence College that are nearly 100 years old, and certainly several of Brown's buildings are well over 100 years old. These facilities survive and prosper because of the sound stewardship of school leadership.

    This is just another example of the incompetence of public school management.

    • Max D.

      "This is just another example of the incompetence of public school management."

      No lie there. Back a few years in the midst of the financial crisis in my community, all the public sector unions agreed to no raises over a three year period except one, the teachers. Not because the teachers actually refused but the school committee refused to ask. They were finishing up negotiations with an unratified agreement in place and didn't want to go back to the table.

  • MoniqueAR

    Exactly. Great post. The lack of background and context in the ProJo article as to the reason that we are here is maddening.

    Schools have not been properly maintained in large part because for many years, local officials have chosen to spend the money elsewhere: namely, ensuring that teacher pay got jacked up to the top quintile nationally.

  • Guest

    People complain about their property taxes….they should look at their town budgets and note what percentage of said taxes go to the schools…usually over 75 percent. Then look at the school budgets and what labor costs are for the schools…about 80 percent. So over 1/2 your property taxes go to teachers and administrators. Add in the state monies and you see the entire picture. We pay premium prices for middling results.

  • mangeek

    I pointed this sort of thing out back when I was working at URI and they had a building that needed an unexpected $2M in repairs.

    I think what I actually said was "We don't need the state to fix this, we can just tighten the belt a little bit and pay for the repairs 'ourselves' through savings."

    I was almost fired, which would have been entirely possible since I wasn't protected by a bargaining unit like everyone else.