Editorial: These staggering school investments are overdue

Posted 10/25/23

This is not a great time to build a new school or rehabilitate an old school. Construction costs are soaring. The Massachusetts School Building Authority tracks data on major school construction …

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Editorial: These staggering school investments are overdue


This is not a great time to build a new school or rehabilitate an old school. Construction costs are soaring.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority tracks data on major school construction projects throughout the commonwealth, with 185 separate projects over the past 14 years plotted together in one convenient graph. It resembles a hockey stick placed on the ground with the blade pointing up.

A decade ago, the average construction costs were $250 to $300 per square foot. Five years ago, they were $350 to $400 per square foot. Today, they are $600 to $700, even $800 per square foot.

Had Barrington been prepared a decade ago, it might have already constructed a major addition to its tired high school and rehabilitated its array of 70-year-old elementary school buildings for half the cost of what it now faces. Instead, voters are being asked to approve long-term borrowing of up to $250 million to fund an array of expansion and modernization projects.

It is a staggering amount of money for a bedroom community of this size, where 94% of property taxes are extracted from single-family homeowners — the most lopsided residential tax burden in all of Rhode Island.

Yet this is the unfortunate reality facing the community with the reputation for having the best public schools in the state. That reputation is ingrained in the fabric of this community, and it powers this town’s property values and its real estate market, but it is not poured in concrete. That reputation is fluid, and it can change. Decaying, outdated buildings can undermine both the perception and the performance within these schools, and the unifying force that drove several generations of families to choose Barrington over all other communities can be lost.

Aside from the middle school, the school buildings in this town are embarrassingly old and outdated. All were built in a 12-year span from 1950 to 1962. Barrington High School is 70 years old, tired, inadequate for modern high school programming and borderline embarrassing. Sowams Elementary, the youngest elementary school in the district, is 61 years old.

The educators who work in these buildings face an array of spacial and logistical challenges. They convert closets into offices, deliver therapy services behind cloth screens and face constant heating and cooling challenges.

This is not to imply that children cannot learn in old spaces. They can, and they do. However, anyone who has been inside the new Barrington Middle School can feel the energy, the lift, of a modern educational space. It is bright, vibrant and built for flexibility. Its classrooms are endlessly adaptable to different teaching methods and learning styles. The middle school is home to a 21st-century environment.

The other Barrington schools are not.

To fortify this “best-in-state” public school district for the rest of the 21st century, Barrington taxpayers must make major investments. They have no choice. If these schools are not updated or replaced now, they will be in two years or five years or 10 years.

The advantage now is the promise of significant state aid. Barrington expects to receive a little more than half the funding from the State of Rhode Island. If all goes as planned, the state would be pay 53%, with taxpayers left to fund “just” $112 million.

It remains a staggering amount of money for a small bedroom community, but there is also a staggering cost of doing nothing. If voters reject this bond and kick the can down the road, taxpayers will still face repair bills approaching an estimated $90 million. Consultants have identified a laundry list of critical renovations necessary to keep these school buildings operable in the future — heating systems, electrical systems, roof repairs, not to mention horribly overdue security upgrades.

There are two choices. Reject the bond and spend tens of millions of dollars pouring good money on top of bad. Or approve the bond and invest once again in the foundation of this community.

Those already in favor of the bond should feel confident that their investment will bring Barrington High School up to modern standards for both programming and resources, with state-of-the-art labs and technologies for science, engineering, math and the arts. It will add necessary teaching spaces, breakout spaces and meeting spaces at the elementary schools. It will breathe life and vitality into buildings that currently undermine what is taking place within.

Those who remain skeptical could consider this vote a placeholder for the future. Even with approval on Nov. 7, the district must still flesh out its plans for each building and each project. Those details and the actual borrowing must come before the public once again for review and approval. Killing the bond now stalls all progress. Approving it keeps the program moving forward for another formal review and final vote.

It’s a terrible time to be building or renovating schools, but it is an even worse time to do nothing. This school system will not continue to flourish without overdue investments.

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Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email mrego@eastbaymediagroup.com.