Summer Brings Building Boom in City Schools

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While most students and teachers have abandoned classrooms for the summer, thousands of schools are nonetheless abuzz with activity.

This is especially true in some urban districts, where, after years of neglect, schools are ringing with sounds of drills, chain saws, and hammers as workers race to restore and repair old schools and finish building new ones before classes resume this fall.

  • From June through August, Detroit officials are spending some $80 million to repair and restore the most ailing of the district's 263 schools. Workers are replacing roofs and windows, repairing restrooms, and painting and polishing hallways and classrooms.
  • In addition to finishing three new schools and four multistory additions in Chicago this summer--part of a major capital-improvement plan there--officials are improving access for the disabled, modernizing high school science labs, refurbishing restrooms, painting classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias, and generally sprucing up schools.
  • On any given day in New York City this summer, some 20,000 construction workers will be spread out over about 600 school construction or renovation projects. The New York City School Construction Authority is working on adding 16,000 new seats to the 1.1 million-student system by September, part of a five-year, $11 billion capital-improvement plan.

Broad Support

"School construction has reached an all-time high," said Joe Agron, the editor in chief of American School & University, an industry magazine that tracks construction trends. Last year, according to an annual nationwide survey by the magazine, some $17.1 billion was spent on building and repairs, up from $14.9 billion in 1997. "We're seeing a lot of that work in the largest school districts," he noted.

Such districts also have the biggest pot of construction dollars, the largest number of dilapidated schools to spend it on, and, most important, Mr. Agron and other experts say, political leaders who have taken the school construction bull by the horns.

"The political will is great, and the know-how is there," added Paul Abramson, a school construction consultant and the editorial director of the trade magazine School Planning & Management.

"It's not just education people talking about [fixing schools] anymore," Mr. Abramson continued. "It's coming from the mayors and governors now, too--political people who know how to get things done."

Long Backlog

In many cases, construction and repair projects are coming after decades of deterioration and neglect of city schools. Generations of students have spent their days in rundown buildings, often with leaky roofs, chipped paint, cracked windows, drafty classrooms, and restrooms with broken fixtures and no stall doors.

But in many big urban districts over the past few years--with the economy soaring, the school-age population growing, and popular support for upgrading schools rising--a backlog of construction needs is finally being addressed.

"The level of support to build and repair schools has been nowhere near what it should have been over the last 20 to 25 years," said Dan Childress, a spokesman for the 174,000-student district. "I can't tell you how excited teachers and principals are to finally get these needs addressed. Principals who usually take a short break over the summer are sticking around to ensure that the projects are handled properly."

Motor City voters passed a huge, $1.5 billion school bond initiative in 1994, but the district hasn't taken on any major projects since the measure passed, Mr. Childress said. The district's schools are on average 60 years old.

In New York City, which has spent $7.5 billion on school construction and repairs in the past decade, Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew has outlined an $11 billion capital-needs budget for the next five years. This summer, the city's School Construction Authority, which manages school building and repair projects, is busy with 89 new schools, additions, or mini-schools, 73 "major modernizations," and 5,200 assorted other projects.

Some 180 schools in the district still have antiquated coal-burning boilers. The district has set a goal of removing all of them by 2001.

"We've just finished a record number of construction projects, but there's still a tremendous amount of work to be done," said Jack Deacy, a spokesman for the construction authority. "The physical integrity of schools is terrible."

He attributed the wave of construction activity to "a public that knows there's a physical crisis in schools because they haven't been maintained over the years."

"It's like the transit system here," Mr. Deacy continued. "Twenty years ago, it was grinding to a halt because they had deferred all maintenance. It's the same now for schools."

Economy Credited, Blamed

Though the booming economy has brightened the financial picture in many districts, it also has a downside for administrators who are scrambling to get schools built or repaired.

In the spring, Detroit officials had to sit down with the district's largest contractors--who are also busy this summer with several big commercial-construction projects, including new football and baseball stadiums and a major airport renovation--to ask them to make the district's projects a priority despite their tight schedules.

"Most contractors were tied up on jobs," explained Mr. Childress, a district spokesman. "But there's a new spirit here in Detroit," since Mayor Dennis W. Archer took over schools in the spring.

And when Mike Duggan, a Wayne County official who is overseeing the district's construction efforts, asked local contractors to make schools a priority, he said, they agreed to help. Mr. Duggan, the county's chief deputy executive, is serving the district temporarily as a a deputy chief executive officer to interim Superintendent David Adamany.

And in New York, officials say prices of both materials and labor have risen sharply. "Prices are up all over," Mr. Deacy of the construction authority said. "And there are shortages in carpentry and all kind of trades."

In Los Angeles, where voters passed a $2.4 billion bond issue in 1997--the largest ever for a local district--not only are construction costs skyrocketing, but the price of land also can sometimes surpass the cost of building an entire school. In addition to 91 new schools the system intends to build in the next 10 years, many of its 915 schools and centers need repairs, officials say.

"Expensive land is the real problem here," said T. Bradford Sales, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "We're landlocked as a city. There's very little open space left to build schools," and the spaces that are for sale are either incredibly expensive or former industrial sites that need to be cleared, he said.

Vol. 18, Issue 42, Pages 1, 16

Published in Print: July 14, 1999, as Summer Brings Building Boom in City Schools
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