Districts Scramble To Cope With Building Needs

By William Montague — June 03, 1987 21 min read

In South Palm Bay, a booming coastal suburb near the Cape Canaveral space complex in central Florida, school officials gathered last month to dedicate Christa McAuliffe Elementary School, named for the 37-year-old teacher-astronaut who died last year when the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

But while the memory of that tragedy lent special significance to the occasion, the dedication of new schools is hardly a newsmaking event these days in Broward County, the heart of Florida’s burgeoning “Space Coast.’'

In the past year alone, Broward County has opened three elementary schools, and officials estimate that they will need at least five more to keep pace with an enrollment expected to grow by between 2 percent and 3 percent in each of the next five years.

At New York City’s Seward Park High School Annex, meanwhile, falling plaster, dangling wires, and broken toilets have become as much a part of the academic environment as tests and textbooks.

Across the city, students and teachers must cope with similar signs of decay, attempting to teach and learn amid conditions that Mayor Edward I. Koch has called “shocking’’ and “deplorable.’'

Nearly 3,000 miles to the west, television viewers in the conservative Salt Lake City area are being asked to support radical measures to cope with overcrowding in the schools.

In a public-service advertisement commissioned by the state, Merlin Olson, a former pro-football star, seeks to persuade reluctant parents to support a plan to shift the city’s elementary schools to year-round schedules over the next four years.

Abolishing the traditional summer vacation, Utah officials explain, is a key part of the state’s drive to find room for a student population expected to nearly double before the end of the century.

A ‘Growing Cancer’

Across the nation, states and school districts are searching for ways to cope with a rapidly accelerating crisis in the nation’s educational infrastructure--the buildings and machinery that surround, shelter, and support the business of learning.

In an increasing number of communities, school officials are experiencing a profound reversal of fortune. After a decade of pitched battles over the need to close half-empty schools, administrators are now faced with finding space for millions of new students--at a time when their ability to tax, borrow, and spend has been sharply limited.

Districts must also respond to state reforms that have reduced student-teacher ratios, adding to the pressure for additional classrooms. And construction needs must compete for funding with such other reforms as higher teacher salaries.

At the same time, districts are reporting a steady deterioration in existing school buildings.

According to a recent survey by the Council of Great City Schools, little progress has been made in reducing a staggering inventory of needed improvements. Although an earlier 1983 study identified a $25- billion backlog of repairs, the average district spends less now on such work than it did in 1982, the council reports.

“There is a growing cancer on the infrastructure of urban school districts,’' the report warns. “Without a massive injection of capital improvements, schools in urban districts will continue to deteriorate.’'

In many districts, school officials are finding that they lack the expertise to deal with these and other facilities-related problems, according to experts in the field. And at the state and national levels, they add, policymakers generally lack the information they need to recognize where the most serious problems lie.

“Everyone deals with the problems of education itself, whether Johnny can’t read or write,’' suggests Robert Graves, who directs the Educational Facilities Laboratory in Austin, Tex. “But we have been much less thorough in dealing with the conditions under which Johnny attempts to learn to read or write.’'

In many states, Mr. Graves says, authorities do not even know what facilities are available and what their condition is. District officials, he says, often fail to track factors that can affect enrollment trends, such as commercial development.

The consequences of such ignorance can be severe, experts noted. An overcrowded, troubled school system can drive businesses from a community or persuade others not to settle there.

In extreme cases, local governments have been forced to set limits on residential development in order to prevent enrollment increases from reaching crisis proportions. For instance, in Maryland’s Montgomery County, a fast-growing suburb of Washington, school officials last year asked the county to reject 15 proposed subdivisions because of overcrowding in the schools.

To cope with such pressures, districts and states are increasingly turning to consultants such as Mr. Graves to provide the long-range planning they lack.

School officials, the consultants say, are anxious to avoid past mistakes, such as initiating building programs for schools that will only be needed for a few years of peak enrollment.

The Baby Boomlet

Of all the trends that school planners must take into account, the most important one--a steady enrollment increase over the rest of the century--has long been predicted.

Since the mid-1970’s, the United States has been experiencing what demographers have labeled the “baby boomlet’'--a kind of delayed echo of the more substantial baby boom of the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

After reaching a post-World War II low in the early 1970’s, the birthrate has rebounded sharply, as millions of women born during the original boom started having children of their own. When the boomlet peaks in 1988, the number of births will have increased by nearly 24 percent since 1973, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

This birth trend accelerated in the early 1980’s, swelling enrollments in successive grades as the wave of students made its way through the system.

According to the U.S. Education Department, total school enrollment will reach 41 million by 1992, up from about 38.7 million in 1986. The number of elementary-school students will increase nearly 18 percent between now and 1998, says Edward P. Caffarella, a demographer and Virginia Commonwealth University professor.

But the boomlet will not last as long, or soar nearly as high, as the original baby boom, according to Mr. Caffarella and other demographers. Instead, they speak of a “window’’ of increased births that will close rather quickly in the mid-1990’s, creating a series of enrollment “spikes’’ in successive grades that will last only a few years.

And, unlike the earlier boom, increased migration and uneven patterns of economic growth mean that the current boomlet will fall more unevenly across the nation, Mr. Caffarella notes.

While communities in the Sunbelt states of the South and West are growing as fast as, or even faster than, they did in the 1960’s, some industrial areas in the Northeast and Midwest are seeing only minor enrollment increases, and, in some cases, the numbers are continuing to decline.

Unequal growth is also the rule within regions and even within individual districts, notes Katherine E. Keough, a consultant on facility issues and an assistant professor at Queens College.

According to Ms. Keough, the boomlet will be shaped in part by some long-recognized cultural and ethnic distinctions. Schools in many parts of the West and Southwest will continue to face enrollment growth long after student populations in other regions once more decline, she said, attributing her prediction in large part to traditionally high fertility rates among Hispanic women.

But even in the fastest-growing areas, the boomlet will largely bypass some neighborhoods. In many older, more established suburbs, the lack of affordable housing will tend to exclude young families with children, demographers predict.

Problems and Opportunities

For school planners, the baby boomlet, while presenting special problems, also offers opportunities for creative solutions. Unlike the 1950’s, when officials relied almost exclusively on new construction to meet the demands of growth, today’s policymakers are searching for alternate strategies.

In many cases, the search for other options is prompted by fiscal necessity. For example:

  • In California, legislative analysts say the state will need at least 26,000 new classrooms by 1990, at a cost of some $3.5 billion, a figure far beyond what most political analysts say the state’s taxpayers are willing to bear.

  • In Utah, education-department officials predict that each year the state will gain as many new students as are already enrolled in its 10th-largest school district--and will continue growing at that pace for the forseeable future.

  • Florida officials say they will need at least 432 new schools by 1992, and another 329 schools, including 94 high schools, by 1998.

“This is not a problem that we are going to overcome in my lifetime, and I’m not that old,’' says Byron Kimball, director of facilities planning for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system.

Like their counterparts in many other districts, Mr. Kimball and other Los Angeles officials say that building schools remains their preferred method for coping with enrollment growth.

The continued reliance on this approach has been reflected in a sudden turnaround in school construction nationwide.

According to the Census Bureau’s most recent estimates, such spending rose by nearly $1 billion between the 1983-84 and 1985-86 school years, after falling steadily throughout the first part of the decade.

Increasingly, however, economic realities are ruling out a strategy that relies exclusively on new construction, school officials say. In fact, in a growing number of districts, construction is the last, not the first, option to be considered.

While many districts have experienced increases in nearly every area of their operating budgets over the past 15 years, construction costs have skyrocketed, rising much faster than the general inflation rate.

According to Mr. Graves of the Educational Facilities Laboratory, the cost of a new building, which once ran as low as $14 per square foot, can now exceed $80 per square foot. The price of land has also soared in many suburban districts.

Hard To Explain

At the same time, political support for school spending has been weak in many communities. Bond issues--the most common source of funds for school construction--have become harder to convince voters to support. According to a 1983 study, the approval rate in bond elections fell from 75 percent in 1965 to 56 percent in 1977.

Increases in state aid have sometimes compensated for this loss of support. According to the National Governors’ Association, 17 states provide no school-construction financing to local communities, and a number of others give only minor support.

Winning support from the local community and from leaders at the state level is made more difficult by the nature of the population boomlet, according to demographers. While elementary-school enrollments are rising quickly, the number of high-school students is still dropping, resulting in relatively stable enrollments in many districts.

“Very often school boards and parents will look at the total enrollment figures and conclude that there isn’t a problem,’' says Ms. Keough of Queens College.

And parents often do not understand that the move toward smaller class sizes, coupled with the trend toward increased numbers of remedial and special-education classes, has reduced school capacity.

That pressure can be considerable. According to a California study, reducing class sizes by only one student results in $163 million in added costs, including the need for additional classrooms.

“One of the hardest things for me to explain when I speak to community groups is why the school that was built back in 1960 to hold 500 kids is now overcrowded with 300 students,’' Mr. Graves says.

Even when money is available for construction, other school officials say, bureaucratic procedures can make the planning and building process a nightmare of red tape. In California, for example, a statewide board must review and approve all construction plans before state funds can be awarded.

According to Mr. Kimball, the facilities planning director for the Los Angeles district, this process requires local officials to undergo three review steps, which can take up to five years.

“We’re trying to get that down to three years,’' he says, adding that he is “not sure if we can.’'

When districts do build new classrooms, the design emphasis is increasingly on flexibility, according to Jim Rydeen, a Minnesota architect who specializes in school construction.

According to Mr. Rydeen, who is chairman of the American Institute of Architects’ committee on architecture for education, contemporary school design stresses such features as built-in computer wiring, movable walls, and ventilation systems that can be altered when rooms are rearranged.

“You have to make sure that the building can accommodate not only new technologies, but also changes in educational practice,’' Mr. Rydeen says.

Alternatives to Construction

In the search for alternatives to construction, local officials can choose from among a number of options, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. They include:

  • Year-round schools. Increasingly popular in the West and Southwest, the year-round concept has been embraced by districts in the form of any of a number of alternative school calendars. Under one of the most popular plans, students in each grade are divided into four groups, with each group staggered on a three quarters on, one quarter off schedule.

Supporters of the year-round idea contend that such plans can increase school capacity by between 25 percent and 30 percent, reduce fixed costs, and pay an added dividend by improving students’ academic performance.

The year-round plan has proved especially popular in Utah, according to Larry Horyna, a planning specialist with the state department of education.

“New construction is out of the question for most of our districts,’' he says. “Many of them are even limited in their ability to put up portable classrooms. We are running out of options.’'

Year-round schools are not without their costs, however. Chief among these is the need to install air conditioning in many existing buildings for summer occupancy. Although Utah planners are experimenting with low-cost techniques, such renovations can still cost up to $90,000 per school, according to Mr. Horyna.

And many facilities experts question the use of year-round schedules to solve overcrowding problems. Studies have shown that such calendars work best when participation is voluntary, according to Mr. Graves.

“It has not proved popular with the public when it is forced on them as a way of dealing with space problems,’' he explains.

Such objections notwithstanding, the use of year-round schools has grown quickly in the past few years. According to the National Association for Year-Round Education, 410 schools are now using year-round calendars, and more are considering such a move.

In Los Angeles, district officials plan to place a large number of schools in suburban areas on year-round schedules and use the additional seats to accommodate students bused from overcrowded schools in the city.

  • Extended school day. By adding class periods to the school day, officials can increase the buildings’ capacity instantly, at a minimal cost.

For this reason, experts say, the extended-day schedule has become the most popular alternative to new construction, especially for high-school students.

As with year-round schools, however, many parents dislike the double-session arrangement, which can interfere with family transportation and day-care plans.

  • Non-traditional space. School officials are increasingly recognizing the advantages of adapting non-school structures to provide classroom space, Mr. Graves says.

Such “found’’ space is frequently inexpensive, can often be leased or bought on short notice, and may easily be returned to commercial use when no longer needed, he notes.

According to the consultant, a wide range of surplus commercial and government properties, including warehouses, shopping malls, and factories--even an unused National Guard armory--have been converted into classrooms.

But, because of poor acoustics and lighting, among other shortcomings, such buildings often do not provide a proper learning environment, warns Mr. Day, the Indiana-based consultant.

And in some states, stringent health and safety codes for public schools can preclude the use of commercial buildings.

In California, for instance, the Field Act, designed to prevent the collapse of schools in that earthquake-prone state, has ruled out the use of non-school buildings, according to Henry Heydt of the state education department.

  • Portable classrooms. Temporary classrooms that can be hauled from school to school to meet shifting enrollment patterns have also proved to be a popular option, especially in the warm-weather states.

The term “portables’’ can cover a range of structures, from the simple trailers, similar to those found at construction sites, to elaborate “modular’’ buildings with brick facades and cable-television hookups.

According to Mr. Day, such modular housing can be erected for about 75 percent of the cost of permanent buildings and require considerably less maintenance.

“The only drawback is the image,’' he says. “No matter how well-built they are, many parents are still going to look at them as trailers, and no one wants their kids to go to school in trailers.’'

Other facilities planners note that, while portable structures can be used to reduce classroom sizes, such an approach only increases the pressure on support facilities, including cafeterias, libraries, and bathrooms.

And in many communities, Mr. Graves notes, “temporary’’ classrooms, originally intended as a short-term solution to overcrowding, have become permanent fixtures in many schoolyards.

“Portables are overused because they are one of the easier ways to deal with the problem,’' he says.

  • School reorganization. Although elementary schools are bursting at the seams in many districts, high-school enrollments are still declining in most regions of the country. By changing the dividing lines between elementary, middle, and high schools, local officials can match students with available seats.

In Minnesota’s Roseville school district, for instance, school officials recently decided to close the district’s two middle schools in order to fill its half-empty high schools.

A number of districts have taken the opposite tack--moving 5th and 6th graders into middle schools in order to make room at the elementary level.

While this strategy offers maximum flexibility to hard-pressed administrators, the political consequences can be traumatic, says Mr. Caffarella, the Virginia Commonwealth University professor.

“Parents develop strong allegiances to particular buildings or particular schools,’' he says. “If you shift grades around, you have to face some of the same questions as when you close schools--who stays, who goes, and where do you send them.’'

All Fall Down

While administrators in fast-growing communities worry about finding space for their increasing enrollments, other school planners are fighting to prevent the wholesale deterioration of existing facilities.

Sometimes, officials must fight both battles at once. According to Margaret Scholl, the Los Angeles school system’s maintenance director, the district has accumulated a backlog of $464 million in needed repairs.

“We’ve been able to reach a point where we are no longer adding to the backlog,’' she says, “but, with our current funding, there is no way we can ever eliminate it.’'

Such situations are not unusual. A recent survey of 25 school districts by the Council of Great City Schools found that school officials are spending an average of 3.3 percent of their total budgets on maintenance needs, about one-half of what they were spending four years ago.

“The tendency has been to look at maintenance first whenever the budget has to be cut,’' says Mr. Graves of the Educational Facilities Laboratory. “It’s not very dramatic to say you need to re-roof 500 buildings. It’s not sexy.’'

Sexy or not, the maintenance problem is one of gigantic proportions. School buildings rank near roads and highways on the list of America’s largest infrastructure investments. According to the National Governors’ Association, the nation’s 80,000 schools would cost nearly $240 billion to replace. Yet this investment is largely unprotected, experts say.

In Los Angeles, for example, the current maintenance budget is enough to paint classroom interiors once every 100 years--"whether they need it or not’'--and to replace floor coverings every 50 years, jokes David Koch, the district’s business manager.

According to Mr. Heydt of the California Education Department, few, if any, of the state’s districts even have a regular cycle of repairs. “The vast majority are on a ‘deferred maintenance’ schedule,’' he says. “That means they [repair] things when they can afford to.’'

Ms. Scholl and other facilities planners say they expect the problem to grow considerably worse in the near future. Over the next 10 years or so, the huge number of schools hastily built during the baby-boom years will reach an age when large numbers of expensive repairs can be expected, they say.

In Los Angeles, for example, nearly 45 percent of all the district’s schools date from the 1950’s and early 1960’s, according to Ms. Scholl.

Because so many districts have failed to maintain their buildings, most experts note, breakdowns are occurring earlier and are more serious than they otherwise would have been.

The shoddy construction of many baby-boom schools is also a problem, according to Mr. Day. “Districts were thinking they would go 75 years without needing major repairs, when, in fact, they are only getting 20 or 25 years,’' he says.

What little money is available for maintenance must often be diverted to deal with health and safety problems, which generally take precedence over all other repair needs, according to Mr. Koch.

In Los Angeles, he says, nearly 20 percent of the repair budget is devoted to asbestos abatement and removal. The stricter federal regulations recently issued by the Environmental Protection Agency are expected to increase that percentage.

Maintenance needs, on the other hand, can also draw funds away from such other priorities as new construction. In California, Gov. George Deukmejian is feuding with the state legislature over his plan to divert bond revenue earmarked for new construction to help districts pay for their repair needs.

Financial Experiments

With money tight and needs pressing, an increasing number of districts are also experimenting with alternative ways to pay for new classrooms.

In the tiny hamlet of Tinmouth, Vt., for example, more than 150 residents recently contributed materials, technical expertise, and labor to build an addition to the town’s two-room schoolhouse.

But in most districts, more ambitious solutions are needed, officials say. Until this year, a growing number of school systems had been exploring various lease-purchase arrangements.

Under such plans, district officials float bonds to pay for the construction of a school, then sell the school to a real-estate developer. The developer then leases the building back to the district, sometimes giving school officials an option to buy back the facility at a later date.

While such arrangements have offered numerous advantages, recent changes in the federal laws governing tax-exempt bonds have effectively put an end to the practice, according to Katherine Herbert, a lawyer for the National School Boards Association.

Securities brokers, however, have recently developed a similar financing system that avoids the bond restrictions. Under the new system, investors purchase securities known as “certificates of participation,’' and the developers use the proceeds to build schools.

The developers then lease the buildings to local school districts, and use the rent money to pay back the investors who purchased the certificates.

“Lease-purchase is going to make bond referendums obsolete,’' predicts Lois Triverio, business manager for the Hamilton Township school district in New Jersey.

In other states, construction needs have forced policymakers to question some long accepted principles of public finance. In North Carolina, for instance, Gov. James Martin has asked the legislature to approve an unprecedented $1.5 billion bond issue for school construction, despite the state’s tradition of “pay as you go’’ financing.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, has turned to commercial and residential developers to help foot some of the bills for school construction. Under a state law passed last year, the city’s board of education is authorized to collect up to $50 million in fees from developers with projects in the district.

But despite such experiments, the forecast for most states and localities is the more traditional combination of higher taxes and--if possible--deeper debt, experts predict.

In several states, Mr. Graves notes, courts are moving aggressively to prod reluctant legislatures to pick up a larger share of construction costs, in part because of concerns about ensuring equity between poor and wealthy districts.

“The states are going to have to face up to this problem eventually,’' he says. “They really don’t have much choice.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 1987 edition of Education Week as Districts Scramble To Cope With Building Needs