School Climate & Safety

Capitol Expenditures

By Jessica L. Sandham — June 06, 2001 20 min read
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This past September, students in Superior, Ariz., finally moved into a school building worthy of its name. Thanks to aid from the state, the new Superior Junior-Senior High School has plush carpeting, functional plumbing, and a roof that doesn’t leak.

The ranch-style stucco building, located at the base of the Superstition Mountains, is no Taj Mahal, but its amenities are a far cry from the old high school in the former copper-mining town some 60 miles east of Phoenix. For years, students and staff members tolerated drooping ceiling tiles, faulty wiring, and pipes so rusty that a simple turn of a wrench would split them in two. The community simply couldn’t do anything about the 80-year-old building without outside help.

That help finally arrived after a 1998 state supreme court ruling compelled the legislature to take the burden of paying for school buildings off the backs of local taxpayers and place it almost entirely on the shoulders of the state. In so doing, Arizona became one of a growing number of states that have been forced—by litigation, school crowding, or the sheer need to meet modern educational demands—to play an expanded role in local school construction and repair.

Traditionally, most states joined Arizona in considering the construction and renovation of schools a local responsibility. It’s an approach that some experts say has contributed to a national school facilities problem of crisis proportions.

“The problem has really grown out of a lack of state responsibility over a long period of time,” said Richard G. Salmon, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. “It’s hard to understand why states determined they had no role and left it to localities, when poor localities never really had the ability to build schools very well.”

At a national level, the extent to which states’ historically hands- off stance has changed is hard to gauge with precision. No comprehensive data are available on just how large a piece of the growing school construction pie is being paid for by states. But the evidence points to an expanding state role.

From 1994 to 1998, for example, the number of bills passed by state legislatures related to capital-outlay funding more than tripled, from 18 to 60, according to a December 2000 report in the journal School Business Affairs. Education-related bills tied to tax bases and taxation—some of which dealt with tax revenues specific to facilities funding—jumped from 13 in 1994 to 85 in 1998. And from 1993 to 1999, nine states—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming—made significant changes to their school construction finance systems that moved them toward more equalized funding, the magazine reported.

In addition to those states, lawmakers in such places as California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Texas have come forward in the last five years with more money—often much more—to help districts address their facilities problems.

In Maryland, for example, Gov. Parris N. Glendening approved plans last month to add almost $100 million to the state’s school construction program for fiscal 2002, bringing total state spending on the program to almost $1.5 billion since the governor took office in 1995. At the time, Mr. Glendening set a goal of pumping $1.6 billion into school facilities over the course of two terms in office.

Last spring, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack signed into law a measure providing $50 million in state aid for school construction over three years—the state’s first such direct aid program. Despite such activity, the extent to which states foot the bill for school construction—and the methodology they use to determine the state share—is different in nearly every state.

While states such as Idaho, Nevada, and Minnesota rely predominantly on districts to pay for school repairs and construction, others states have chipped in for decades. An assistance program in Massachusetts that reimburses districts for 50 percent to 90 percent of the cost of school construction, for example, has been in place since 1948. Washington state, meanwhile, has helped pay for schools through the sale of timber on state lands since it first achieved statehood in 1889.

So as matters stand, the means of paying for facilities vary to a much greater degree from state to state than do the approaches to financing schools’ day-to-day operations. Yet some observers predict that states are moving toward not only a larger role in paying for facilities, but also a more uniform approach to that task.

“A lot of the trends that developed in school finance formulas are starting to develop in school capital-finance formulas,” said Michael P. Griffith, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “Back in the ‘70s, the big push for finance changes started with a few court cases, and that’s the trend we’re seeing now with school construction. We’re 30 years behind.”

Building Boom

For many local districts, it seems, the trend is coming just in time. The U.S. General Accounting Office issued an influential report in 1995 stating that it would cost $112 billion to bring existing schools throughout the country into good overall condition. The National Education Association nearly tripled that figure a year ago, when it placed a $322 billion price tag on the cost of needed school repairs, construction, and technology. Of that figure, the union estimated that $268.2 billion was needed for construction and repairs alone.

The report estimated that more than one-third of the country’s schools needed major repairs or replacement, and that the hefty cost estimate “quantified what our members have been telling us for years—we have a crisis that is worsening by the day.” That need has not gone unnoticed. According to a March 2000 report by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, annual construction expenditures for K-12 schools grew by 39 percent from fiscal 1990 to fiscal 1997, while student enrollment increased by only 12 percent during the same period.

And the upward trend in spending continued beyond 1997. According to a February report by the journal School Planning and Management, school construction expenditures last year topped those for any other year on record. The study found that for the first time, the $21.2 billion spent on school construction in 2000 amounted to more money in inflationary-adjusted, real dollars than the $4.9 billion spent on school construction in 1974—a year the report identifies as the last high point in construction spending, tied to the baby boom generation.

“We’re building and renovating school facilities at a more rapid pace for three reasons,” said James W. Guthrie, the director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “One, there’s more kids; two, the courts are increasingly getting engaged in it; and three, the World War II buildings are wearing out.”

The building boom has come as researchers are still working to sort out the link between the quality of a school’s building and the quality of a student’s history essay or math exam. While some studies have found a connection between lower achievement levels and shoddy or noisy facilities, others paint a more muddled picture. Most seem to agree, however, that districts shouldn’t expect to see academic gains simply by pumping up their capital-outlay budgets. (“Bricks and Mortarboards,” Dec. 6, 2000.)

Nevertheless, states increasingly see better facilities as “a part of the overall vision to try to improve student performance,” said Dane Linn, the director of educational policy studies for the National Governors’ Association, based in Washington.

“Even in states that haven’t traditionally played a role in school facilities, there’s an urgency to do something,” Mr. Linn said. “It’s part of creating an environment that’s conducive to learning.”

Making the Case

Of all the factors driving states to help districts meet their facilities challenges, none has been a bigger force than litigation.

Whether targeted by lawsuits focused exclusively on school facilities, or by broader education finance suits that incorporated facilities funding, states such as Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming have all been pushed by lawsuits to re-examine their approaches to facilities funding. School finance litigation tied to facilities has grown in popularity in recent years, in part because it’s easy to prove disparities, Mr. Salmon of Virginia Tech said.

“Anybody could look at a building and see that the roof leaks, that it doesn’t have good wiring, or that it was built on the cheap,” he said. “When you’re dealing with bricks and mortar, regardless of the reasons for the inadequate facilities, it’s fairly easy to convince a court that there’s a problem. And since it’s a state system, it’s a state problem.”

In Arizona, the changes propelled by litigation have been top-down and dramatic. In 1998, the state adopted a comprehensive school construction program. The change followed a ruling from the state’s highest court that directed lawmakers to remedy their capital-finance system—which had been dependent on local property taxes—or risk closure of K-12 public schools. The ruling came out of a lawsuit originally filed in 1991 by a coalition of poor districts in both rural and urban areas. They contended that the state’s method of paying for school buildings produced serious disparities and violated the state constitution’s requirement for a “general and uniform” public school system.

By the time the Superior district decided to sign on as a plaintiff in the 1991 suit, its decaying high school had already been officially condemned for five years. The mineral-rich water in the old copper-mining community had caused the plumbing to erode over time, and the water pressure was so inadequate that the state water company was forced to hook the school directly to its local pump house so that students and staff members would be able to flush the toilets. The school’s roofs leaked so badly that administrators once walked into a new computer lab the day after a rainstorm to find an inch of water on the floor.

“It was just deplorable,” said Richard Krempasky, the superintendent of the 650-student school district. “We were constantly fixing things. We’d spent about $2.1 million simply to keep up with repairs, and it was just money down the drain.”

Though the community had historically supported bond measures to pay for schools, a state law at the time that capped districts’ bonding ability inhibited the school system from replacing the faltering building. Even a successful bond measure in Superior would net a maximum of only $2.3 million—not nearly enough to pay for a new high school.

Elsewhere in the state, there were larger districts where “you simply couldn’t get a bond passed if your life depended on it,” said Timothy M. Hogan, the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which represented the districts in the court case. “It wouldn’t matter if there was no roof on the school.”

Protected From Politics

After years of legal wrangling, the Arizona Supreme Court sided with the school districts three years ago. Now, it’s as if Arizona has become a governmental earth mover, as it carries out plans for more than $1 billion in new construction projects.

The state now covers nearly all the expenses associated with building a new school, including the cost of land and architectural fees. In addition, millions of dollars are set aside annually, including $130 million for the upcoming 2002 fiscal year, to help districts pay for maintenance of school buildings.

The funding stream is designed to be ongoing and invulnerable to the political ebbs and flows of the legislature. A state school facilities board tells the state treasurer how much money is needed, and the money can be appropriated without legislative approval.

“It’s a first lien on the general fund,” Mr. Hogan said. “It’s a matter of constitutional right to these kids, and the legislature cannot decide not to fund it.”

Arizona also recently wrapped up a 16-month initiative in which officials dispatched inspectors to examine every one of the 1,210 public school buildings in Arizona. Having assessed the needs of existing schools, the state is beginning a $1.1 billion effort to address them.

Voters last November passed an increase in the state sales tax that will pay for the bulk of the projects. The facilities board will oversee the construction work, issue the contracts, and pay all the bills.

Such top-to-bottom state involvement is necessary because districts often don’t have the staff or capacity required to oversee major projects, said Philip E. Geiger, the executive director of the Arizona School Facilities Board.

“We do not ignore districts,” Mr. Geiger said. “They are partners in the process. But they don’t have the obligation of bidding this work out or supervising it.”

Centralizing the authority over school projects at the state level has another advantage: cost savings. By lumping together work in several districts rather than bidding it out separately, the state is able to shave money off construction bills.

And while districts had some initial concerns about losing local control, Mr. Geiger says the facilities board has made a concerted effort to keep districts in the loop. A recent “customer satisfaction” survey garnered responses from 91 out of 228 school districts and suggested that districts are predominantly content with the state’s efforts. Ninety-six percent reported that the school facilities board had met their expectations, and 95 percent reported that their facilities board liaisons were helpful and responsive.

Mr. Krempasky, for one, says he is just happy to have a spotless school where toilets flush and ceiling tiles don’t fall to the floor.

“I take my hat off to the state,” Mr. Krempasky said. “They’ve come to realize what’s needed and they’re doing something positive about it.”

Growth Spurt

Some states have also been pushed by booming student enrollments to immerse themselves more deeply into the facilities funding stream. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics reports that an estimated 53 million students filled the nation’s public and private K-12 classrooms this school year—marking the fifth straight year of record-setting enrollment.

Fueled by a rise in immigration and the demographic trend known as the “baby boom echo"—the surge in births from baby boomers having children—such steady enrollment increases over the past decade have spurred states such as California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, and Texas to play a more active role in helping their districts accommodate new students.

Illinois has spent $1.4 billion on school facilities since the legislature first approved a state school construction program in 1997. Lawmakers voted last week to approve an additional $740 million for the program, which was created in part as a way to help districts cope with booming enrollments. Georgia also threw its hat into the ring in April, as Gov. Roy E. Barnes signed into law a $468 million state construction initiative. To underscore the need for it, the signing ceremony took place at a 1,240-student suburban Atlanta elementary school that was designed to accommodate 800 students. In addition to experiencing record-high enrollment growth, Georgia’s school facilities crunch is compounded by a new push to lower class sizes.

“No child should have to attend, nor should any teacher have to teach, in a school that is too small,” the Democratic governor said at the April 24 signing ceremony.

Alleviating school crowding in Florida, meanwhile, has been a hotly debated topic in the legislature for years. Almost four years after state lawmakers approved a record $2.7 billion to help districts house their students, they debated school construction funding again this spring.

This time, the discourse centered around how to help districts help themselves. Student enrollment in the state has been growing by some 50,000 students every year, making it hard for districts to keep pace with the tide of new students.

Florida’s $2.7 billion in construction bonds—which will be paid back over 30 years with state lottery revenue—was important and necessary as a stopgap measure, “but it didn’t really solve the problem,” said Ruth Melton, the legislative liaison for the Florida School Boards Association.

“That has been difficult for us in the aftermath,” Ms. Melton said, noting that various sources estimate that the state still has a need for $10 billion worth of additional spending on school facilities. “Because many legislators don’t realize that a tremendous need still exists,” she said, “they always point to this special session and say, ‘We gave you $3 billion. I thought we were done with this issue.’”

‘Screaming for Help’

For the 251,000-student Broward County, Fla., district, the needs are far from met. In the second- fastest-growing school district in the country, next to Clark County, Nev., the challenge is clear from the numbers: 2,000 portable classrooms, and a net gain of roughly 10,000 new students every year.

The district is already taxing its residents at the maximum allowable rate, and the $261 million it received from the 1997 state allotment is already encumbered in past or future construction projects. Still, the district can’t build schools fast enough.

“There’s got to be a way for us to get beyond screaming for help,” said Judie S. Budnick, a Broward County school board member who also served on a recent governor’s commission on growth management. “We can’t beg, borrow, and steal every legislative session. With or without a lean year, kids needs schools, and there needs to be a seat ready for them when they come to our state.”

Florida legislators this spring considered a proposal to require county planning officials to work closely with local school districts when deciding whether to grant permits for new housing developments. That approach was recently put into practice in Orange County, Fla., where county officials have turned down development requests because the county schools didn’t have enough space to accommodate new students.

Even though some residential construction has been curtailed, however, Orange County school officials estimate that they still need $1.2 billion to replace aging portable classrooms and catch up on a backlog of renovation projects—needs that were put on the back burner while the district was still gasping to keep pace with growth.

“It’s all well and good to say that you will stop growth until you have the space to keep up with that growth,” said Jackie Johnson, a spokeswoman for the 154,000-student Orange County district. “The problem is that we are already in a hole. We have a crisis now, and we need the funding now.”

For that reason, groups such as the Florida School Boards Association and the Florida Home Builders Association lobbied state lawmakers this spring to tackle school construction funding alongside growth planning. That’s where negotiations between members of the House and the Senate ultimately broke down.

The Senate plan would have empowered Florida school boards to raise local-option sales taxes by up to 1 cent without voter approval, while House lawmakers wanted to require a voter referendum to approve any increases. Legislators also disagreed on whether to force municipalities to deny new development if there was insufficient space in schools.

Time Runs Out

Gov. Jeb Bush, for his part, opposed the financing provisions in the Senate plan because he believed that it was premature to identify a funding stream, said Lisa Gates, a spokeswoman for the Republican governor.

“He felt it was important to have the county commissioners and school boards work together and know what they were funding before they asked for the money,” Ms. Gates said. “Otherwise, it’s like throwing money at an unidentified problem.”

In the end, the clock ran out on the legislative session before the differences could be resolved.

“We ran out of time,” Ms. Budnick said. “Unfortunately, time ran out on kids, too. It’s going to be at least another year before we can do anything.”

Even as some states are working to keep schools afloat amid a flood of new students, others are finding that schools built for previous generations are simply wearing out.

The National Center for Education Statistics released a report last June based on the results of a representative survey on school facilities conditions given to 903 elementary and secondary schools. The center revealed that one in four schools had reported having at least one building in “less than adequate” condition. A much greater proportion, 76 percent, reported that they would have to spend some money on repairs, renovations, or modernization to bring their schools into good overall condition.

Part of the problem is that many districts have been forced to continue using buildings constructed quickly and sloppily during the baby boom era, said David S. Honeyman, the director of the Center for Education Finance at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “The worst buildings were built in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, with flat-roof construction,” Mr. Honeyman said. “They built these buildings thinking it would be the end of the boom—they had a 20-year useful life. Now we have boomlets, and they have to put these kids someplace, so districts are stuck with these buildings.”

In New York state, where the average school is about 50 years old and roughly 1,000 schools were built before World War II, lawmakers voted in 1998 to increase the rate at which the state reimburses districts for needed school construction by 10 percentage points. The state has long earmarked money for school projects based on a district’s wealth; richer districts might receive only a 10 percent reimbursement of capital costs, for instance, while poorer ones might receive as much as 90 percent.

With the state agreeing to boost its contribution to facilities costs, districts began to pass a flurry of new bonds—from $393 million worth in 1998 to $2.6 billion in 1999 and $3.6 billion last year. State spending, meanwhile, has almost tripled, from $601 million in fiscal 1997 to roughly $1.75 billion in fiscal 2001.

Need To Modernize

Empire State lawmakers were compelled to address the condition of the state’s school buildings not only because of their age and disrepair, but also because they were ill-equipped to handle modern technological and educational needs, said Alan Ray, a spokesman for the state education department.

“There was a general need for renovation and new technology,” Mr. Ray said. “At the same time, the board of regents pushed an aggressive increase in learning standards, so districts were finding the need to upgrade their facilities to meet those higher standards.”

In the 800-student Afton school district in rural Chenango County, N.Y., officials seized on the new state aid as an opportunity to modernize their one, K-12 school that was originally built in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt was president. A patchwork of 1920s, ‘60s, and ‘90s-era additions to the original structure, the building’s current renovations are driven by “what’s going on in the world today,” said Superintendent Vernice N. Church.

Because of a new state standard that requires high school students to spend more hours in science laboratories, the district is adding a science lab, as well as two technology labs. The $16.2 million project will also include a media center and an auditorium designed to satisfy new state requirements in the arts, drama, and media literacy. In addition, the project will include a new gymnasium to replace one that is so small that, when bleachers are pulled out during basketball games, “people in the first row have their knees practically in the court,” Ms. Church said.

But the response by local districts has caused a bottleneck in the processing of state aid, which has delayed funding for the Afton project and others. Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, this year proposed capping the amount the state would spend and doling out the money on a competitive basis. While the governor’s proposal appears to lack legislative support, some observers say the state is still trying to get its hands around a program that proved more popular than expected.

“New York has gone a long way to providing districts with habitable structures that are amenable to helping districts meet higher academic standards,” said David Ernst, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association. “We say thank you, but we certainly don’t apologize, given that the crush of projects represents an enormous pent-up demand.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2001 edition of Education Week as Capitol Expenditures


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