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Cost of Repairing School Facilities Tops Legislators' Agendas

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Alta, Utah-- As the nation's legislatures seek a more active role in education policy, several key fiscal issues are at the top of the agenda, according to staff experts gathered here for a two-day seminar.

In an informal poll, some 30 financial analysts were asked to cite the most pressing issues facing their states, both as they see them and as reflected in the priorities of the legislative leaders they serve.

Clearly topping that list of concerns is the threat of huge capital costs stemming from the widespread deterioration of school buildings and other facilities. Nearly half of the participants cited the problem as their single most important fiscal problem.

Other issues seen as critical included the need for better systems to assess the accomplishments of state-funded programs, a perceived lack of coordination between public schools and state higher-education systems, and the constant political struggle over funding formulas.

Although admittedly unscientific, the survey--and the roundtable discussion that followed it--provided a valuable look at the policy priorities likely to emerge in next year's legislative sessions, conference organizers said.

Capital Costs Predominate

According to seminar participants, leaders in a growing number of states are focusing on facility needs, an area that in the past has generally been viewed as a local responsibility.

With the nation's backlog of school repairs now estimated at over $25 billion, and with a wave of schools built during the 1950's and 1960's reaching an age when major repairs are necessary, fund8ing demands threaten to overwhelm local resources, speakers said.

At the same time, however, participants noted that state officials must also consider the competing demands of other infrastructure investments such as roads and sewer systems.

"We need to balance our priorities very carefully," said Allan Parry, senior analyst for New Jersey's Office of Legislative Services.

Innovative options are also needed to improve legislative oversight of state and local education programs, analysts said. Experts from eight states said assessment and oversight was their number-one problem.

But Eugene Brucker, a consultant with the accounting firm of Deloite, Haskins and Sells, warned that solutions may be difficult to find. Existing evaluation systems, he said, are weak at nearly all levels.

According to Mr. Brucker, a former superintendent of the San Diego school system, many local officials regard program assessment as a marginal activity, making it vulnerable to cuts in times of budget austerity. State agencies, he said, may lack objectivity in judging programs which they have designed and advocated.

School-College Coordination

Discussion also centered on the widespread perception that administrators in both local school districts and in the higher-education community are not coordinating their efforts, especially in helping students make the transition from high school to college.

Several analysts expressed an interest in a Minnesota program that allows gifted high-school students to attend courses at state colleges and universities. Other speakers focused on the need to make better use of the resources that can be found at local community colleges.

Rounding out the list of top issues, seminar participants pointed to perpetual debates over how states allocate funds to local districts and to various education programs.

While only a few analysts predicted major reform efforts in their states anytime soon, nearly all said they expected their legislatures to keep tinkering with the formulas in an effort to satisfy competing interests.

The problem with those efforts, one staff member commented, is that they may damage systems that are already about as equitable as can reasonably be expected.

"Sometimes it's just as important to resist poor changes as it is to make good ones," said Lars Rydell, a legislative analyst for the Maine House of Representatives. "And it can take even more political skill."

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