School-Building Inventory Finds 1 in 8 Inadequate

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One in eight public-school buildings in the United States provides a poor physical environment for learning, according to the most extensive survey on the state of school facilities conducted in nearly 30 years.

The survey of superintendents in more than 15,000 school districts nationwide, conducted by American Association of School Administrators and released last week, found that nearly 5 million students attend classes in public schools that are inadequate due to old age, overcrowding, or flaws in their structures or mechanical systems.

Much of the money needed for maintaining and improving facilities, meanwhile, is being diverted to pay energy costs, the study says.

"Too many of our school buildings are on the critical list," Richard Miller, the executive director of the A.A.S.A., said in a statement.

"We as a nation cannot live with this condition, because it seriously impairs the learning environment for millions of our young people," Mr. Miller said. For school facility planners, administrators, and architects gathered for a national conference outside Atlanta last week, the consensus was that the A.A.S.A. report was accurate and that the education-reform movement has largely ignored the need to upgrade school buildings.

New educational programs have been placed in antiquated facilities that hinder their implementation, and most schools are physically ill-equipped to meet the national education goals adopted last year, several conference participants said.

"All the talk about national goals, about [President Bush's proposed] 'new American schools'--it can't be done without changing the facilities," said Tony J. Wall, the executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, which sponsored the Atlanta conference. (See related story, this page.)

Franklin Hill, an architect who wrote the book Tomorrow's Learning Environment for the National School Boards Association, added: "We have totally ignored our capital infrastructure-- buildings--in our educational thinking."

The A.A.S.A. survey, which draws from all 15,840 school districts in the United States, found that school administrators consider 12 percent, or 13,200, of the nation's 110,000 public school buildings to be inadequate.

Old age was the most commonly cited reason for buildings' being below par. The survey found that nearly one-third of public schools were built before World War II; only 11 percent have been built since 1980.

All told, 74 percent of public schools were built either before the war or during the 1950's and 1960's. Mr. Miller of the A.A.S.A. termed the postwar years "an era of cheap construction to meet Baby Boom needs."

Other problems that render school buildings inadequate, according to the survey respondents, include overcrowding, structural and environmental hazards, poor or nonexistent heating, and problems in air-conditioning, electrical, and mechanical systems.

More than half of the administrators responding said their school districts needed new construction.

At the same time, the report points out, the cost of just catching up on deferred maintenance in public schools has been estimated at $100 billion by the Association of School Business Officials.

Problems with facilities were described as particularly acute in the Southeast, where 16 percent of all schools were termed substandard.

'Harder To Learn'

The survey results were part of a larger A.A.S.A. study on facilities issues being conducted by Educational Research Services with funding from Honeywell Inc.

Last week's report, called "Schoolhouse in the Red," was the first in nearly three decades to survey local school officials on the physical condition and adequacy of their educational facilities.

Similar findings were published in "Wolves at the Schoolhouse Door," a wide-ranging study released by the Education Writers Association in 3.989. But that study was based on interviews with state facilities directors and did not directly examine the problem at the local level.

"We are in no way trying to shift the attention away from educational improvement" in issuing the new report on facilities, Gary Marx, the associate executive director of the A.A.S.A., said last week.

"But," he said, "we also recognize that the learning environment is very important to education, and the school building itself can either enhance the learning environment or be an inhibiting factor."

The A.A.S.A. study cites a 1988 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching report that linked student attitudes toward education with their learning environments. It also notes that an independent study this year of District of Columbia schools concluded that student achievement on standardized tests would be 5 percent to 11 percent higher if the physical condition of the local schools improved. "A poorer physical environment makes it harder for children to learn and harder for teachers to teach," Mr. Miller said.

Link to National Goals

Even for school buildings that are adequate by today's standards, dramatic physical improvements are needed for the sake of equipping classrooms to meet the national education goals, experts said last week.

Kathleen C. Westbrook, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Loyola University in Chicago, and Glen I. Earthman, an associate professor of educational administration at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, argued in a report presented at the facility planners' conference that the six national education goals outlined by President Bush and the nation's governors cannot be reached without changes in the "bricks and mortar" of schooling.

New facilities will need to be built if districts are to reduce class sizes, implement new preschool and kindergarten programs, expand alternative and magnet programs, and carry out other reforms that would help in meeting the goals, Ms. Westbrook and Mr. Earthman said.

Moreover, advances in technology and sweeping changes in the function and operation of schools have spurred changes in school design, several conference participants said. "School design is a hot subject again," C. William Brubaker, the vice chairman of the national architectural firm Perkins & Will, said in a speech delivered at the conference.

"In the 1990's, it looks like we have a new ballgame," he said. "The demographics are going up. A lot of new ideas are being considered."

But Mr. Hill, the author of Tomorrow's Learning Environment, cautioned in an interview, "I don't want us to conclude that every old building needs to be torn down."

"We have remodeled many schools for the future in very old buildings," Mr. Hill said.

Impact of Energy Costs

As school districts attempt to find the resources to improve both education and educational facilities, they are likely to see their funds diverted toward a third need, increased energy costs, the A.A.S.A. report warns.

The survey of superintendents found that fewer than half of the nation's school districts have effective energy programs, at a time when the cost of heating, cooling, and lighting buildings has steadily increased.

"Each year, nearly $2 billion needlessly goes up the smokestacks," Mr. Miller of the administrators' group said.

In 1991 alone, according to the study, the total annual energy costs of public schools are expected to increase by $490 million, to at least $7.4 billion. Many administrators will likely pay for those costs, the report says, by dipping into their maintenance budgets and thus delaying the very repairs needed to keep energy costs down.

As districts move to comply with new standards for indoor air quality to ensure children's safety and to avoid lawsuits, their energy consumption is likely to rise by 20 percent, at an added annual cost of about $1.5 billion, said Shirley J. Hansen, who conducted the A.A.S.A.'s energy research as the president of the private firm Hansen Associates.

The A.A.S.A. survey found that one-third of school districts have not conducted energy audits, and that more than two-thirds of audits already undertaken are outdated.

Energy-management programs could reduce the annual energy bill of the nation's schools by 25 percent, or $1.85 billion, Ms. Hansen estimated.

But the school administrators responding to the A.A.S.A. survey said they have been hindered from improving their schools' energy efficiency by a lack of funds, the competing financial demands of educational programs, and their need to spend funds to meet federal environmental mandates such as those dealing with asbestos management and removal.

"It's clear from the findings that school administrators know what can be done to cut energy costs," Mr. Miller said. "They simply lack the funds to do the job."

Vol. 11, Issue 13, Pages 1, 13

Published in Print: November 27, 1991, as School-Building Inventory Finds 1 in 8 Inadequate
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