Advocates Build Case for Federal School Construction Aid

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President Donald Trump wants Congress to provide substantial funds to pay for "gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways." Not on the list outlined in his recent State of the Union address: schools.

Education advocates are hoping to change that.

"We think that's really got to be in it, and, hopefully, the president knows that his list was short," said Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which champions school facilities funding. "Infrastructure isn't just about transportation."

Trump is asking Congress to come up with a plan that will generate $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure investments.

Getting the federal government to pony up for new school facilities hasn't been easy, even in better political circumstances.

Back in 2009, Democrats tried to get money to build new schools included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a nearly $800 billion package intended to jump-start the sluggish economy.

But moderate Republicans, whose support was needed to pass the stimulus bill, balked at adding to the measure some $16 billion in grants that districts could use to update and repair school facilities. The compromise: $24 billion or more in zero- or low-interest bonds that districts could use for the rehabilitation and repair of facilities.

Democrats and some middle-of-the-road Republicans have signaled they're likely to seek money to construct and refurbish schools again.

Democrats sought to direct some $100 billion to school construction in their infrastructure plan, released last spring. More recently, 25 senators sent a letter to Trump asking him to partner with states to improve school facilities, especially in low-income and rural communities. The lawmakers highlighted a 2014 federal study that said it would take $197 billion to pay for needed repairs, modernizations, and renovations.

Impact Aid Needs

It's not clear if Trump and other Republicans will be persuaded. But no one may be watching the outcome of this debate more closely than school districts located on or near federal lands.

Impact Aid, which has been around since the 1950s, helps school districts make up for revenue lost thanks to a federal presence, such as a military base or Native American reservation. Federal property is not subject to state and local taxes. The program, which has broad bipartisan support, is currently receiving about $1.3 billion. That includes $17.4 million for school construction, a number that's barely budged for years, said Jocelyn Bissonnette, the director of government relations for the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. (For context, that amount wouldn't even build one school in many districts.)

Bissonnette is hoping an infrastructure push could mean a federal investment in school construction for federally impacted districts.

Though school construction grants didn't make it into the ARRA, the legislation did include $100 million for federally impacted districts. Bissonnette is hoping Congress will single out Impact Aid districts yet again.

Federally impacted districts are in a unique situation, she argued. Many don't have much taxable property, or a lot of taxpaying residents. "These school districts are at a unique disadvantage because of the presence of federal property," Bissonnette said. Many have "no practical capacity to issue bonds and raise resources."

And, she said, the need is clear. Last summer, NAFIS surveyed 218 districts in 37 states and found they had a collective $4.2 billion in pressing construction needs and $13.2 billion in overall construction needs.

More than a quarter of districts reported facilities that were more than 80 years old, and 65 percent said their facilities were in either "fair" or "poor" condition. Problems ranged from leaky roofs to lead and mold in buildings.

Curt Guaglianone, the superintendent of Mt. Adams School District #209, which sits on the Yakima Native American reservation in central Washington, has been trying for years to replace an 80-year-old elementary school.

The building is "too small, not necessarily safe," and isn't on par with facilities in nearby districts, he said. "Everything leaks. Even the bricks leak. Every year, something goes out in a building this old."

Aging Buildings

The student body has outstripped what the aging facility can handle. Some students are stuffed into portable classrooms, some of which are 50 or 60 years old themselves. And other children are currently learning in a converted bus barn.

The district would need at least $28 million to build a new school, but it can't raise much more than a quarter of that locally because of the rules governing federally impacted lands, Guaglianone said. The state has passed some extra construction funds for small districts. But it would "be really nice if the federal government [lent a hand] because we are on federally impacted lands," he said.

Related Blog

Other districts have taken on debt to cover construction costs. The Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified district, which sits near tribal land in northwestern California and serves a largely low-income, Native American population, launched a major makeover of its schools beginning in 2014.

Before the overhaul, the facilities were in "Third World" condition, said Jon Ray, the superintendent of the roughly 1,000-student district. The buildings, first constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, had rot and decay, peeling lead paint, and asbestos.

Now Klamath-Trinity is about three-quarters of the way through its construction plan. Test scores and attendance have jumped in the made-over classrooms, he said. But it's come at a cost. State and local money covered roughly 85 percent of the first phases of the project. With little new construction money from Impact Aid, Ray had to borrow to make up the rest. That's meant annual payments that have cut into the district's general operating budget.

The district is struggling to pay for the last round of projects without making cuts that would affect the classroom. If Ray borrowed the remainder of the money, "I'll have nice facilities, but I won't have teachers to run the classrooms," he said. He's hoping Congress is able to help. "Everybody has chipped in, except the federal government."

Staff Writer Denisa R. Superville contributed to this article.

Vol. 37, Issue 20, Page 21

Published in Print: February 14, 2018, as Advocates Build Case for Federal School Construction Aid
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