Crowded, Dilapidated Schools Lack Welcome Mat for Students

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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 questions facing school administrators is: Where are we going to put them?

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.

For school officials in desperate need of new schools, that raises another question: How are we going to pay for them?

With the going rate for elementary schools at about $6.4 million each, for middle schools around $9.8 million, and for high schools about $15.4 million, the Education Department estimates the total bill for new schools in the next decade at $60 billion.

"The enrollment boom is one of the biggest challenges facing public schools," said Michael Resnick, the senior associate executive director of the National School Boards Association.

The vast majority—45.9 million—of this fall's record number of students are in the public schools, and local districts will bear the brunt of future growth.

  • In Houston, children will attend school 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, Fla., 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, Nev., raised enough money for 24 new schools and renovation of 114 others, but it wasn't enough. Enrollment has nearly doubled in a decade and is expected to reach 250,000 by 2002.
  • And in Walled Lake, Mich., a fast-growing suburb of Detroit, voters have turned down three bond requests for new schools since 1993. School officials there were hoping last week that the latest request, for $117 million, would pass on Sept. 28.

Inadequate Environment

Compounding the demand for new schools are the substandard and sometimes dangerous conditions in many of the nation's 80,000 existing ones--many of them well over 50 years old.

The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates the need for maintenance, repairs, and upgrades for roof repairs, fire-code violations, and air-quality problems at $112 billion nationwide.

Since 1991, total 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, to $10.4 billion, from the prior year's record of $10.7 billion, according to a recent annual study by American School and University magazine.

Industry analysts, however, say the 1995 figures may represent the calm before the storm, and 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.

No New Taxes

Unlike voters a generation ago, many people today are far more reluctant to support school-bond issues, experts say.

"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," Mr. Resnick said.

A study last year by the National School Boards Association found that in 85 school districts surveyed, nearly one-fourth of proposed bond issues or tax increases had failed during the past five years.

"It's becoming more and more difficult to pass any kind of bond issue or tax levy," said Jay Butler, an NSBA spokesman.

Rod Paige, the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, has learned that 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.

District officials say that a fourth of Houston's 210,000 students are schooled in temporary classrooms, and that 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," said Paul Abramson, an education consultant and the 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."

Like a Home Mortgage

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 schools 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 that it could squeeze the district's future spending. But district officials say that, with little hope of a bond referendum passing, it's their only alternative.

"We're just borrowing it from the future," said Henry Boekhoff, Orange County's associate superintendent for business services.

Community Support

Failed tax increases and bond issues, however, aren't always a sign that the public doesn't support education, some experts say.

Often, states have pitted the school construction against the need for prisons and other public facilities, said Susan A. MacManus, a professor of public administration and political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

For many voters, she added, a deciding issue is perceived administrative bloat.

"In their minds, they think there's an administrator for every kid," she said. "They've faced layoffs and downsizing in the private sector and think, 'I've had to adjust. Why can't you?'"

Ms. 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.''

Sissy Henry, the deputy executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association, has helped districts pass bond referendums in her state since 1974. She advises school boards to look past the traditional function of a nine-month school and design new schools to serve whole communities.

"It's the community model where the argument is no longer that the money is being wasted," Ms. Henry said. "By building ownership, all kinds of good things can happen."

Stopgap Measures

With enrollment outpacing construction, many districts turn to portable classrooms as a stopgap solution.

Fairfax County, Va., where enrollment hit a record high of 147,000 this fall, is using about 500 trailers.

About 60 of them move from school to school to accommodate students during renovation or expansion of existing facilities. The rest function as semi-permanent classrooms.

"Portables are a great short-term solution," said Dolores Bohen, the spokeswoman for the suburban Washington school system. "But there are many negatives. It's hard to justify spending a lot on a building that might move away."

In Pembroke Pines, Fla., staff members at Silver Palms Elementary School called the 13 portables they taught in while their school was being built "the camp."

This fall, they said goodbye to the campsite and moved into their shiny new school. Already, however, a building designed for 990 students is packed with about 1,700.

"We never expected this many," said Principal Jane Hall. "But morale is still very high."

The throngs of young students, many of them "really just babies," turn routine disorder—fire drills, lunch, locker visits, and school dismissal—into potential pandemonium. Still, Ms. Hall said, conditions at the new school are better than last year.

Suburban Sprawl

Growth is relative, and 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, the addition of 71 students—bringing total enrollment to 2,318 this year—has forced schools to hire additional staff.

Superintendent Michael Carlson has increased the number of temporary classrooms at the district's four schools from two to six.

Voters will be asked next month to approve a $16.5 million bond issue—the third in three years—to enlarge and renovate the district's four schools.

"We're not as big as the others," Mr. Carlson said, "but we're experiencing the same sort of growing pains."

Similar growth has transformed the 1,250-student Gretna school system near Omaha, Neb.

A $7.5 million bond that passed in December paid for a new middle school and added classrooms at an elementary school. But the schools are "filling up fast," said Superintendent Gail Kopplin.

"We've been trying to keep a student-teacher ratio in the low 20s," Mr. Kopplin said. But growth has pushed that ratio closer to 30 this year.

Administrators are working on a long-range construction plan to cope with new housing and apartment development that is expected to double enrollment to 2,500 in the next decade, Mr. Kopplin said. "Housing is going up rapidly, and families just keep coming in."

"Knocking at the Doors" was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Vol. 16, Issue 05, Pages 1, 12-13

Published in Print: October 2, 1996, as Crowded, Dilapidated Schools Lack Welcome Mat for Students
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