The single largest piece of the state budget – roughly $1.4 billion from general revenue – goes to education.
That includes more than $900 million for school districts, distributed through a formula that takes enrollment and financial need into account.
For fiscal year 2019, Governor Gina Raimondo has proposed fully funding that formula.
“Which is about a $14.5 million increase compared to last year,” said Rhode Island's Education Commissioner Ken Wagner, who oversees public elementary and secondary schools.
Wagner pointed out that under the governor's proposal, funding for education would increase, even as the state looks to close a two-year deficit estimated at $260 million.
Raimondo's proposal includes $2.5 million in new funding for preschool and child care initiatives, and $4 million for a new job training and community college center in northern Rhode Island. The governor is also proposing an additional $1 million for each of the state’s three public colleges, money that would be doled out based on their success at measures like increasing degree completion rates.
“So the good news is in a very difficult budget time we’re continuing to make historic investments in education with no broad-based cuts,” Wagner said.
But the Rhode Island Association of School Committees is raising some concerns. The group said Thursday that $14.5 million isn't much of an increase for public schools when you divide it between 36 districts and 25 charter schools. Costs to districts, such as contributions to the teacher retirement fund, are rising. And, the group said, property tax payers are responsible for a larger share of public school costs in Rhode Island than in nearby states like Connecticut and Massachusetts.
School committees would like the state to increase contributions to public schools, relieving the burden on local property taxes.
The biggest headline-grabber in the governor’s budget is a proposal for $250 million in school construction bonds. The measure is likely to appeal to parents, teachers and students, in addition to workers in the building and construction trades.
“Its no secret that Rhode Island school buildings need a significant upgrade," said state Treasurer Seth Magaziner. "This plan would make a once-in-a-generation, major investment in upgrading public school buildings all across Rhode Island.”
A state-commissioned report last year found that more than $2 billion would be needed to bring school facilities up to date. The governor's proposal is to begin with a $250 million bond issue on the November ballot.
If voters say yes to the bond, Magaziner said, the state will pick up an extra 5 percent of the tab for school construction projects that match the governor’s priorities -- things like science and engineering facilities and early childhood education. Projects that meet multiple criteria would be eligible for even more funding, up to 20 percent in addition to the state's usual rate of reimbursement for that district.
“And the purpose of this is that we want to incentivize the cities and towns to fix their schools more quickly," said Magaziner. "By saying hey, the state will pick up a larger part of the cost, but only if you move in the next five or six years.”
The proposal would also provide help for districts that struggle to afford school construction. For those districts, the state already reimburses the bulk of school construction costs. But under the current system, cities and towns first have to borrow all of the money for each project.
“And then the state share doesn’t come until after the building is done," Magaziner explained. "And in the meantime, these communities, particularly the poorer communities, have to hold all of this debt on their books, which a lot of them just can’t do.”
With this proposal, Magaziner said, cities and towns wouldn't have to shoulder such large debts to fix their schools.
Rhode Island lawmakers still have to consider the governor's budget. They usually make some tweaks and changes before passing a final budget at the end of the legislative session.