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Districts Defer Repairs As Budgets Shrink

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The nation's school buildings, many of them at least half a century old, are deteriorating far faster than they are being repaired, leading in some cases to school closings, near accidents, and a demoralizing learning environment. The cost of needed repairs and new construction may total more than $25 billion.

This is the situation depicted by school-maintenance officials in several states and an unreleased survey by three Washington-based education associations of 100 school systems in different parts of the country.

Renovation and Replacement Costs

Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics and the survey indicate that the proportion of school-system budgets devoted to maintenance has fallen from 14.1 percent in 1920 to 11 percent in 1950 to 6.7 percent in 1982. The result, the survey and interviews suggest, is that many school systems are now facing major renovation and replacement costs that, many say, could have been avoided if needed maintenance had been conducted over the years.

"We've been falling behind for years," said Henry H. Baxter, an assistant superintendent responsible for construction in Buffalo, where nearly three-quarters of the 75 school buildings are more than 50 years old. "Now we are really in a crunch. Even the mortar between the bricks is deteriorating." Buffalo has $35-million-worth of unfinished replacement and reconstruction work.

Other examples of the severity of the problem:

In Seattle, the school system has $175 million in approved maintenance and capital construction that it has not completed. Its entire 1982-83 budget is $167 million.

Three years ago, the Portland school system employed 299 craftsmen in 16 different trades, said Merton W. Lindsay, director of system's physical plant. That number is down to 185 now. The system has a backlog of $82 million in deferred-maintainance and major reconstruction projects.

"We've got a lot of 50-to-60-year-old buildings that haven't been touched yet," Mr. Lindsay said. "A few years ago, we found a brick facing that was coming apart from the cement wall behind it. We caught it just before the whole wall landed in the playground. There are probably other walls like that, but we don't have the money to do the testing."

The New York City school system, with an annual budget of $3 billion, is the largest in the country. It also has the largest deferred-maintenance budget: $680 million. The school system was recently told by the Mayor's office to cut $73 million from its current budget.

Residents of Tucson, Ariz., will vote this week on a $210-million bond issue that would be used to build 13 new schools in order to alleviate what Nolan M. Von Roeder, assistant superintendent of maintenance, calls "terrible overcrowding" in the city's schools. "We've got 10, 12, 14 of those portable buildings out in the playgrounds," he said.

The 100 school systems included in the survey conducted jointly by the Council of Great City Schools, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National School Boards Association now spend about $1.2 billion a year on maintenance and capital construction projects. They have accumulated a repair backlog of $3.4 billion. The backlog includes only repairs for which expenditures have been approved.

In a report summarizing the findings of the survey, the associations estimate that if all of the nation's 15,500 school systems have a maintenance backlog that is as large (220 percent) in comparison to their maintenance budgets then the total backlog for all of the nation's schools would be at least $25 billion. The estimate is based on the fact that the 100 districts in the survey spend an average of 6.7 percent of their annu-al budgets on maintenance and on the assumption that the National Center for Education Statistics is correct when it says that the nation's 15,500 districts spent about $105 billion each year.

The problem by far the most often mentioned by the 100 districts was roof repair and replacement. Seventy-one percent of the school systems said roof work was needed. Twenty-seven percent mentioned heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning repairs and replacement as a priority. Other needed school repairs and reconstruction range from boiler replacements to asbestos removal, repairs of damage from vandalism, and improving access for the handicapped.

"Plumbing, electrical wiring, and heating systems in many schools are dangerously out-of-date; roofing is below code in thousands of schools; and school-operated transit systems are judged by some to be unsafe," the report says.

The result of the deteriorating physical condition of the schools, the report says, is not only increasing numbers of disruptions in class routine and reduced efficiency and productivity, "but a deteriorated sense of confidence among the public in our education facilities."

"Worn-out, shabby, and unsafe facilities create impressions of the educational capabliites of the schools," the report adds. Observers note several reasons why school systems are suddenly facing such large repair and reconstruction costs.

"We've been through an era [the baby-boom years of the 1960's and early 1970's] when it was a higher priority to provide facilities than to maintain them," said Paul Barger, director of support services for the Dallas school system, where Superintendent Linus Wright is preparing a $100-million bond package to fund repairs and construction in the city's 215 school buildings.

Sharply higher fuel costs (Chicago's schools' electrical costs rose by 494 percent between 1972 and 1980, according to the associations' report), state tax- and expenditure-limitation measures (29 states have enacted them since 1977), and the age of many schools (100 of Chicago's 585 schools, for example, were built before 1900) were also mentioned by school officials and in the report. The associations' survey included large and small school systems from urban, suburban, and rural areas in 35 states.

It focused, however, on school systems in Congressional districts represented by members of the House and Senate public-works committees. The findings will be presented, along with the accompanying report, to those committees as part of an effort by the three associations to include the repair of schools in public-works and jobs legislation that is expected to be considered by Congress in the months ahead.

The cost of repairing the nation's so-called infrastructure of bridges, ports, roads, waterways, and sewer systems is estimated by financial experts to be between $2.5 trillion and $3 trillion.

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