PROVIDENCE — Voters in Providence could head back to the polls in the first half of 2024 for a special election to approve a whopping $400 million in borrowing for school construction.
The Providence Public School District, which is currently controlled by the R.I. Department of Education, is aiming to use the money to reach a lofty goal: getting all of the district’s students in new or renovated schools by 2030.
The bond, which Mayor Brett Smiley supports, requires approval by the Providence City Council and the R.I. General Assembly before the election can be scheduled.
The details of how the $400 million would be spent have not been released. But it would be a continuation of the “newer and fewer” approach to school construction, school officials told the City Council Finance Committee Tuesday night, where multiple new K-8 schools will be built, rather than continuing to maintain more than three dozen aging school buildings.
The district currently has 37 separate elementary, middle and high schools, and has been slowly closing buildings in recent years as enrollment has declined. Carl Lauro and Broad Street elementary schools closed earlier this year, and in 2021 the district combined Fortes and Lima elementary schools.
Providence voters have already approved more than $400 million combined in school construction bonds since 2018, including $125 million last year. The money remaining from the latest bond is slated to be spent — along with state funds — to build a new Mount Pleasant High School (pegged at $110 million), a new school combining Asa Messer Elementary and West Broadway Middle School, and a new school combining Gilbert Stuart Middle School and Lima Elementary School.
The plan is for more elementary schools and middle schools to combine in the future until there are no more standalone middle schools, according to Mario Carreño, the chief operations officer for the R.I. Department of Education.
But there’s no project list yet for the proposed $400 million bond, which city spokesperson Josh Estrella confirmed would be the largest school bond Providence voters have been asked to approve.
Carreño said it is not yet clear how many fewer Providence public schools there will be by 2030, when the goal is to have 100 percent of students in new or “like-new” school buildings. The projection relies on an assumed enrollment drop to 16,000 students, down from the current enrollment of just under 20,000 students.
“Is this more aggressive than usual? Yes,” Carreño told the city councilors Tuesday. “But there’s also an opportunity here with millions of dollars coming off the table that then wouldn’t allow us to get to 100 percent.”
The school construction plan does not include charter schools, though Providence has historically allowed charter schools to move into empty school buildings no longer in use by the traditional public school district.
The Education Department suggested a special election could be held on the first Tuesday of March, May or June, which would mean Providence would have four elections next year including the presidential primary, statewide primary and general election.
The bond question cannot be combined with the April presidential primary, since it’s not a general election. State and city officials said they do not want to wait until the November general election because the 91 percent reimbursement rate from the state for school construction projects expires on June 30. (After that, the reimbursement rate goes down to 80 percent for Providence.)
The proposed school bond must be approved by the General Assembly in order to qualify for state reimbursement. RIDE is asking the City Council to approve the bond by Jan. 1 and send it to Smith Hill for consideration.
Every town and city is eligible for state reimbursement for school construction, though Providence has the second-highest reimbursement rate after Central Falls. The state’s current bonuses, which can increase a municipality’s reimbursement, expire on June 30.
School bonds are typically popular with voters, though North Kingstown shot down a $222 million bond during last week’s election. Seven other communities approved school bonds, though none were as large as Providence is now proposing.
The massive new school bond would not result in any property tax increase in Providence, officials said, because most of the money will be eligible for reimbursement by the state, including interest.
Of the remaining 9 percent that the city will be responsible for paying back, officials said the school district would share its utility savings from the new energy-efficient school buildings with the city to repay the borrowing over time. The school district currently pays $7 million per year for heating and cooling, Carreño said.
The Finance Committee approved a resolution Tuesday night for the school district to move forward with what’s called the “Stage II” application for construction, which has been submitted to the Department of Education for review. RIDE spokesperson Victor Morente declined to release the application to the Globe and said it is expected to be released when it is finalized in mid-December.
Councilwoman Helen Anthony, the chair of the Finance Committee, said the reimbursement rates make it “very attractive” to move forward with the bond. But she said she has questions about how it could result in 100 percent of students learning in new or “like-new” schools, considering the rising costs of construction.
Anthony said she expects RIDE to provide a project list before voters are asked to weigh in on the bond.
“We should have a very detailed understanding of where we are with the projects that have already started and been funded, and also what is being proposed for $400 million,” she said. “I think many city councilors would be supportive of investing money into our schools, which have been neglected for years and are in terrible condition.”