School Facilities: Survey Finds ‘Attitude of Neglect’

By Ann Bradley — April 12, 1989 4 min read
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A quarter of the nation’s school buildings are overcrowded, obsolete, or in need of major repairs, according to a study released last week by the Education Writers Association.

More than half of the schools in use today were built quickly and cheaply during the 1950’s and 60’s and are wearing out, and many are not being properly maintained, says the report, “Wolves at the Schoolhouse Door: An Investigation of the Condition of Public School Buildings.’'

“The American schoolhouse is a visible sign of how the public cares about children,” the report says. “Today, for millions of children and youth, the school represents, sadly, an attitude of neglect.”

At the same time, fast-growing school districts in the Sun Belt and some other Western states are faced with the need to invest billions in new schools. Many high-technology, efficient schools are being built that far outshine anything built in the past, the report says.

Based on data supplied by states, the report estimates that the country’s education infrastructure needs $84 billion in new construction or “retrofitting” for high-tech equipment and $41 billion for maintenance or repairs.

The association based the report--aimed primarily at education writers in an effort to highlight problems with school facilities--on its own national survey of state officials, previously available information, and reports by education writers on conditions in eight sample states.

Officials in 38 states responded to the survey, providing enough information to enable researchers to make comparisons, said Anne Lewis, the report’s author. Those states, she said, contain half of the nation’s public-school buildings.

Because financing, constructing, and maintaining school buildings is controlled largely by individual districts, the amount of information kept by states on school facilities varied widely, the report found. More than a third of the state education departments surveyed had just one employee or a part-time employee responsible for school facilities.

In contrast, Florida’s office of educational facilities has a staff of 55 and keeps a computerized data base on every school building in the state.

“Thousands of school districts face serious facilities problems with few resources for long-term or innovative planning that would be more cost-effective and result in better environments for children,” the report says.

Maintenance of schools lags far behind the amount invested in buildings by the private sector, according to the report, and is often the first expense cut from district budgets. (See Education Week, June 3, 1987.)

In addition, it says, training programs for maintenance personnel often have not kept pace with schools’ increasing high-tech equipment or with complex environmental problems such as asbestos and lead in drinking water.

In New Jersey, where the state’s system of education funding has been challenged in court as inequitable, the state education department recommends that districts allocate 5 percent of their budgets for maintenance. Although 60 percent of its schools are more than 50 years old, the Paterson school district spends only 3 percent of its budget on upkeep, the report says. In Camden, the low-wealth school district was forced in 1987 to delay replacing boilers, roofs, lighting, and exit doors.

Even if adequately maintained, the report says, older schools erected under less-strict building codes include “glaring hazards” such as open stairwells that could act as chimneys during a fire, insufficient fire-alarm systems and exits, hazardous materials, inadequate wiring, and deteriorating foundations.

In Sacramento, where afternoon temperatures can reach 100 degrees in the summer months, school officials estimated that air conditioning is inadequate in 76 percent of the elementary schools and 100 percent of the middle schools.

The district’s enrollment is growing, they reported, but year-round schooling or extending the school day would be impossible without better air conditioning. Installing new air conditioning would cost about $550,000 for each building, according to district estimates.

Districts that must build new schools are turning to states for help in financing the projects, the study found, although “state leadership is not much beyond the talking stage regarding additional help.” The emphasis is on helping districts finance their debts for construction and modernization, the report says, not on states assuming a greater share of the cost. (See Education Week,March 1, 1989.)

“Since the last building boom of the 1950’s and 60’s, not much has been done in terms of equalizing finances for construction, or cost saving such as joint use,” Ms. Lewis said. “There’s some stuff being done by those school districts that can afford it, but it’s very scattershot, and rural districts that could benefit from this sort of thing just don’t have the resources.”

Joint use of schools by community organizations that also share part of construction costs is catching on in rapidly growing communities, the report found. But the projects are limited by legal, political, economic, and social barriers.

In some districts, small joint projects have been completed. The Wake County, N.C., schools, for example, opened a public library at a high school in 1978. The city of Raleigh pays for librarians, and the school district pays for resource staff during school hours.

Some districts have joined with businesses to provide classroom space. Dade County, Fla., operates “satellite learning centers” at the airport and on a community college campus. The employers provide the classroom space, maintenance, and security, while the school district pays for teachers, materials, and the educational program. (See Education Week, Aug. 4, 1987.)

Copies of the report are available for $10 each from the Education Writers Association, 1001 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Suite 310, Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 429-9680. Discounts are available for bulk orders.

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 1989 edition of Education Week as School Facilities: Survey Finds ‘Attitude of Neglect’


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