When they come for school bonds, ask where all the money’s been going.

Our system is set up to ensure that infrastructure, like school buildings, is left to rot.  That dynamic is inevitable when (1) budgeting and negotiations are tilted so heavily in favor of labor and (2) taxpayers can be bullied or forced into spending the additional money to repair or replace buildings when they become bad enough.  The question is whether that tendency will remain viable as the number of students in the schools continues to shrink year after year and decade after decade.

Tamara Sacharzcyk mentions four school districts in an article about mounting campaigns to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on school buildings: Smithfield, Johnston, Central Falls, and Portsmouth.  Let’s take a quick look at the enrollment and budgets of these districts using Anchor Rising’s enrollment tool and audit data.

As with so much else, the transparency is slipping on the audit front, but fortunately, the Wayback Machine has audits back to fiscal 2009, so we’ll compare that year to 2020, which is the latest available.  Because Central Falls is largely state funded, I added the state’s revised aid number. (Note that fiscal years tend to straddle calendar years, so I’ll use the 2008-09 school year as corresponding to the 2009 audit, and so on.)

  • Smithfield
    • Enrollment: 2,545 to 2,382, down 6.4%
    • Education activities spending: $33,482,943 to $44,817,126, up 33.9%
    • Per pupil spending: $13,156 to $18,815, up 43.0%
  • Johnston
    • Enrollment: 3,227 to 3,258, up 1.0%
    • Education activities spending: $56,946,555 to $64,208,657, up 12.58%
    • Per pupil spending: $17,647 to $19,708, up 6.7%
  • Central Falls
    • Enrollment: 3,081 2,878, down 6.6%
    • Education activities spending: $42,490,909 to $42,364,362, down -0.3%
    • Per pupil spending: $13,791 to $14,720, up 6.7%
  • Portsmouth
    • Enrollment: 2,955 to 2,426, down 17.9%
    • Education activities spending: $38,467,906 to $42,477,570, up 10.4%
    • Per pupil spending: $13,018 to $17,509, up 34.5%

Keep in mind that enrollment numbers were universally down from a decade earlier.  I also should note that a massive influx of federal fiscal stimulus aid around this time may have affected the numbers.  More importantly, keep in mind that municipalities tend to carry their capital expenditures for school buildings outside of the school numbers.

Based on these numbers, we see that enrollment is way down in most places (Johnston being an exception), while budgets are way up.  For these schools, inflation may have eaten up the increase, but on the other hand, schools’ performance has generally deteriorated.

As communities argue over indebting themselves (and state and federal taxpayers) for buildings, they must take these broader numbers into account.  Damaged ceiling tiles may make for compelling images in a campaign for debt, but they should be a compelling argument that sufficient maintenance is not being done.


Featured image by Cleyton Ewerton on Unsplash.

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