School & District Management

America’s School Buildings Are Crumbling, and It’s a ‘National Security Issue’

By Mark Lieberman — March 28, 2023 6 min read
Students walk past an open vent for the aging HVAC system at Jim Hill High School in Jackson, Miss., Jan. 12, 2023. A litany of infrastructure issues at many of the school district's aging campuses make for tough choices on spending COVID recovery funds on infrastructure or academics.
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The dire condition of tens of thousands of school buildings across America represents a threat to national security and the well-being of future generations, several of the nation’s top school facilities officials said Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

The only solution, they said, is robust federal investment.

Many districts, particularly in rural and low-income areas, lack the local property tax revenue to fund major school building improvements. Some states contribute virtually nothing to local school districts’ facilities projects. And the last major federal investment in school buildings came during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration in the 1930s.

But recent developments demand bolder action, school facilities officials from Maryland, Rhode Island, and West Virginia said Tuesday during a briefing at the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.

Materials and labor costs for construction have risen precipitously. Many decades-old school buildings lack space for the social workers, psychologists, and early childhood education providers increasingly seen as essential for serving students’ complex needs. Vendors, meanwhile, are swarming districts with pitches for expensive solutions to widespread concerns around school security and ventilation, but administrators don’t have the time or resources to vet the offers. And many school buildings in low-wealth and rural areas lack basic infrastructure like drinkable running water and working heat and air-conditioning.

Districts and states don’t have enough money, staffing, and technical expertise to tackle these pressing challenges without the federal government’s backing, panelists said. Several argued that the country risks falling behind its economic competitors if it doesn’t prioritize buildings that 50 million children spend time in every day.

“It’s not just a local issue. We’re a country, we’re not 14,000 separate entities,” said Mike Pickens, executive director of the National Council on School Facilities and the former top school facilities official in West Virginia. “If we’re going to compete in a global market and economy, the federal government has to be involved.”

Here are a few takeaways that highlight the rocky road ahead for school facilities.

Funding for school buildings keeps falling further and further behind

The nation annually spends $85 billion less than what’s needed to modernize its 100,000 public school buildings and keep them up to date with needed maintenance, according to the 2021 State of Our Schools report from a coalition of nonprofit organizations including the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities, and the International Well Building Institute.

That figure assumes the cost of renovating a school building is $343 per square foot, but more recent estimates suggest the current cost may have risen above $400, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund.

The annual gap between what’s needed and what’s invested nationwide nearly doubled from $46 billion in 2016 to $85 billion in 2021.

Meanwhile, districts in 2021 spent $21 billion—more than the entire annual Title I allocation from the federal government to high-need schools nationwide—paying off debt from school construction bonds.

Filardo illustrated the crux of the problem with two consecutive slides, both from present-day U.S. schools: one that showed students enjoying sleek, clean, expansive school buildings, and another with pictures of schools with rotting floors and windowless classrooms.

Some federal lawmakers and agencies have taken notice—but not enough yet

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., spoke at Tuesday’s event and highlighted a Senate bill he’s co-sponsoring that would invest $130 billion in federal dollars for school building construction. Members of the House of Representatives have floated versions of that bill since 2019, but it’s gained minimal traction.

“We’re sending a very strong message to children when we don’t upgrade and modernize school buildings,” said Reed, whose father was a school custodian. “That message is, it’s not important.”

Several small grant programs for schools have emerged out of last year’s Inflation Reduction Act spending package, including programs aimed at improving indoor air-quality and purchasing electric school buses.

If we don’t do it at the federal level soon, I fear we’re going to reach a point where it’s really difficult to bounce back.

The current federal budget includes $23 million for the U.S. Department of Education to offer grants to state education agencies that need federal help with technical tasks like fielding facilities requests from districts and managing grant programs. Filardo and her fellow advocates are pushing in the next round of budget negotiations to expand that grant program to $50 million.

Meanwhile, the Green New Deal For Public Schools, a proposal from several House Democrats to invest $1.4 trillion in school modernization over the next decade, has languished.

School facilities workers don’t have time to plan long-term or meet with outside partners

Many school districts have open positions—or simply not enough people—on facilities maintenance and operations teams. District leaders often aren’t trained in the ins and outs of facilities and maintenance.

As a result, facilities experts in many districts have time for nothing but the most urgent tasks and repairs. Some vendors and nonprofits that work with school districts have reported struggling to get district representatives to even answer the phone, said Alex Donahue, executive director of the Maryland Interagency Commission on School Construction, an independent government agency that oversees school building needs across the state and approves districts’ proposed projects.

“Districts don’t even have capacity to do background checks” on organizations that reach out, Donahue said. “They can’t accept the help.”

Facilities staff are stretched thin in part because districts struggle to keep pace with wage increases private companies can offer, Donahue added.

More modern buildings may cut down on energy costs, but they present other challenges

The oncoming global threat posed by climate change is bringing more severe storms and extreme temperatures to many parts of the country. States anticipate devoting larger chunks of their facilities’ budgets to emergency repairs, which means fewer resources will be devoted to routine maintenance and other needed, proactive renovation.

Climate change is also prompting a push for more modern school buildings, including facilities that meet “net-zero” standards by only using the amount of energy they produce. Building a new school building may be expensive in the short term, but it could reduce a decade’s worth of maintenance costs on an older facility, said Joseph da Silva, school construction coordinator at the Rhode Island School Building Authority.

Modern school buildings hardly eliminate costs altogether, though. Filardo said she’s heard from school administrators in the District of Columbia who have been surprised at how much they have to invest in maintenance for new buildings.

“Every door has an electronic battery—who’s going to replace those?” she said.

Regardless of the cost, panelists agreed that making the needed investments will pay dividends.

“Education is the foundation,” da Silva said. “If we don’t do it at the federal level soon, I fear we’re going to reach a point where it’s really difficult to bounce back.”


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