Bursting at the Seams

By Kerry A. White — November 01, 1996 6 min read
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The babies of the baby boomers and waves of immigrants are pounding harder than ever on the doors of the nation’s schoolhouses, and educators--unable to post a “no vacancy” sign--are struggling to answer their call.

With a record 51.7 million students enrolled in public and private schools this year, and nearly 3 million more expected over the next decade, one of the biggest challenges school administrators face is where to put them all.

In the short run, districts are gobbling up portable classrooms as fast as companies can churn them out. They are turning gymnasiums, storage rooms, and libraries into classrooms and buying old buildings and converting them into makeshift schools.

The long-term solution, of course, is to build new schools--lots of them. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that more than 6,000 additional schools will be needed in the next 10 years. That raises the question: How are we going to pay for them? With construction costs running at a rate of about $6.4 million per elementary school, $9.8 million per middle school, and $15.4 million per high school, federal officials put the total bill for new schools over the next decade at $60 billion.

“The enrollment boom is one of the biggest challenges facing public schools,” says Michael Resnick of the National School Boards Association.

The vast majority of this fall’s record number of students--45.9 million--is in public schools, and local districts will bear the brunt of future growth. Already districts are struggling to cope:

  • In Houston, some children will attend classes this year in a renovated grocery store. A $390 million bond issue for 15 new schools failed in May.
  • With more than 3,000 students packed into a building designed for 2,000, Bloomingdale High School in Tampa, Florida, has been forced to hold double sessions. The first shift begins at 6:45 a.m.
  • The Fort Worth, Texas, schools bought 40 portable classrooms this year to handle soaring enrollment.
  • A bond issue two years ago in Clark County, Nevada, raised enough money for 24 new schools and renovation of 114 others, but that isn’t enough. Enrollment has nearly doubled in a decade to 167,000 and is expected to reach 250,000 by 2002.

Compounding the demand for new schools are the substandard and sometimes dangerous conditions in many of the nation’s 80,000 existing ones. The U.S. General Accounting Office puts the price tag for needed maintenance, repairs, and upgrades at $112 billion nationwide. Since 1991, construction and renovation spending for K-12 public school buildings has hovered between $10 billion and $11 billion a year. In 1995, the figure actually dropped slightly, from $10.7 billion to $10.4 billion, according to American School and University magazine.

Industry analysts, however, say the 1995 figures may represent the calm before the storm. They estimate that the well-publicized enrollment figures and the need to outfit schools with new technology will boost spending to roughly $12 billion this year.

Unlike voters a generation ago, however, people today are far more reluctant to support school-bond issues to pay for needed buildings and repairs. A study last year by the National School Boards Association found that in 85 school districts surveyed nearly one out of every four bond issues or tax increases proposed over the past five years failed. “Today, [construction] initiatives are a harder sell, especially for the growing proportion of people who think taxes are too high and too much money is spent on schools already,” Resnick says.

The Houston Independent School District has learned this lesson the hard way. In May, voters rejected a $390 million bond proposal that would have paid for 15 new schools and renovations at 84 of the 252 existing ones. A quarter of Houston’s 210,000 students attend school in temporary classrooms, and many schools are in desperate need of repair and upgrades. But a vocal opposition group called Stop HISD Tax Hikes has accused the district of overtaxation and mismanagement--charges that ultimately led to the proposal’s defeat.

“It’s the `no new taxes’ mentality,” says Paul Abramson, an education consultant and publisher of School Planning and Management magazine. “The sentiment in the country is anti-tax and anti-government, and schools are getting hit. It’s a very serious problem.”

Despite the resistance, overcrowded districts have little choice but to forge ahead with construction plans. In Florida, where voters last year shot down six out of eight proposed local tax referendums that would have paid for schools, overcrowded districts are paying for new construction through loans similar to a home mortgage--loans that don’t require voter approval.

In 130,000-student Orange County, the situation has gotten desperate. Nearly 8,000 new students enrolled this year, and thousands more are expected in the years to come. Classes are being held in libraries, auditoriums, and 2,000 portable classrooms. Fourteen county schools have switched to year-round schedules. Since a tax referendum is unlikely to pass any time soon, school officials say they’ll have to take out a $110 million loan from an underwriter and pay it back with future revenue from property taxes.

Critics argue that such financing allows politicians to bypass voters and could squeeze the district’s future spending. But district officials say it’s their only alternative. “We’re just borrowing it from the future,” says Orange County school official Henry Boekhoff.

Failed tax increases and bond issues, however, aren’t always a sign that the public doesn’t support education. Often, states have pitted school construction against the need for prisons and other public facilities, says Susan MacManus, a professor of public administration and political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Another deciding issue for many voters, MacManus says, is perceived administrative bloat. “In their minds, they think there’s an administrator for every kid,” she says. “They’ve faced layoffs and downsizing in the private sector and think, `I’ve had to adjust. Why can’t you?’ ” MacManus believes school officials must engage in extensive pre-election campaigns to highlight fiscal efficiency. “Schools have to be highly visible in showing there’s been a belt-tightening,’' she says.

With enrollment outpacing construction, many districts are turning to portable classrooms as a stopgap solution. Fairfax County, Virginia, where enrollment hit a record high of 147,000 students this fall, is using about 500 trailers. About 60 of them move from school to school to accommodate students during renovation or expansion projects. The rest function as semipermanent classrooms. “Portables are a great short-term solution,” says Dolores Bohen, a district spokeswoman. “But there are many negatives. It’s hard to justify spending a lot on a building that might move away.”

Growth is a relative thing. The addition of even a few dozen students to a small district can cause the same problems that thousands of students bring to a big-city system. In the Highland school district outside Cleveland, for example, an influx of 71 students--bringing total enrollment to 2,318 this year--has forced schools to hire additional staff and increase the number of temporary classrooms at the district’s four schools from two to six.

Voters will soon be asked to approve a $16.5 million bond issue--the third in three years--to enlarge and renovate the district’s schools. “We’re not as big as the others,” says superintendent Michael Carlson, “but we’re experiencing the same sort of growing pains.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Bursting at the Seams


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