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Many Educators Give Their School Buildings Low Grades. There’s No Big Fix in Sight

By Mark Lieberman — March 13, 2023 8 min read
A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C..
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A large percentage of educators and administrators nationwide aren’t satisfied with the buildings where they are tasked with facilitating learning—they’re too small, outdated, toxic, unconducive to instruction, and often ill-equipped for students’ rapidly evolving and growing needs, they say.

And many district leaders say they need more qualified workers to help make urgently needed improvements.

These are among the findings from a nationally representative survey of 296 district officials, 284 principals, and 478 teachers conducted in late January and early February by the EdWeek Research Center. They build on existing evidence of widespread challenges with the physical structures that support student learning and well-being. And they come as advocates continue to call for nationwide efforts to repair existing schools, build new ones, and rethink school infrastructure for a wildly unpredictable future.

Forty-five percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders gave their buildings a “C” grade or lower in the survey, roughly equivalent to the 42 percent who assigned a “B” grade to their building or buildings.

Only 14 percent gave their building the highest marks.

The survey also asked respondents to highlight challenges they’ve encountered in their school buildings that present a major barrier to their ability to serve students.

The responses ran the gamut from insufficient cleaning (23 percent) and rodents or insects (15 percent) to buildings being too cold (22 percent) or too hot (18 percent).

A smaller but still significant percentage pointed to major health and safety concerns. Ten percent cited bad-tasting or undrinkable water. Nine percent said they’re worried about mold.

Seven percent said a lack of windows is a concern, and another 7 percent said their buildings fail to comply with federal Americans With Disabilities Act requirements for accessibility—more than 30 years after the law was enacted.

Children need safe, well designed places to learn, and research has shown that the right school setting can boost students’ achievement. But many educators don’t think the buildings where they work are up to the task, and there’s no broad fix in sight.

The Biden administration has developed grant programs to help schools fund energy upgrades and replace diesel buses with electric ones, and many school districts—predominantly poorer ones—used an infusion of COVID relief funds to pay for building improvements.

But the federal government hasn’t made a major investment in school infrastructure since 1935, leaving states and individual districts paying for pricy upgrades to make existing buildings safer, but also to set them up for the uncertainties of climate change, constantly evolving technological needs, and student enrollments that are declining across much of the country.

That means the urgency for major upgrades differs greatly from place to place, depending on local property wealth and states’ willingness to invest in school buildings. Some students and teachers attend sleek and spacious schools just down the road from buildings that haven’t been renovated in decades.

In Pennsylvania, where a judge recently declared the state’s overall school funding system unconstitutional, testimony submitted by low-wealth districts included images of students seated at desks in hallways because all the classrooms were full.

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Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found last year that schools in Maryland’s Baltimore City district, overwhelmingly attended by Black and low-income students, are older and in more dire need of expensive repairs—including an estimated $34 million needed to resolve building problems that pose an immediate health and safety risk—than anywhere else in the state.

And in North Carolina, a judge has ordered state lawmakers to pass a new statewide school bond for construction, the first in the state since the late 1990s. Without it, districts have to lean on local taxpayers to fix their buildings, said Kris Nordstrom, senior policy analyst for the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education Law Project.

“It’s not surprising in the history of this country that when those limited funds are being distributed, it’s not benefiting the kids who need it the most: the kids who don’t have that political pull that comes with generational wealth,” Nordstrom said.

How districts are dealing with major facilities challenges

In 2019, 53 percent of school districts reported to the U.S. Government Accountability Office that they needed to replace multiple building systems, such as heating or plumbing infrastructure; 41 percent needed major HVAC upgrades.

Since then, thousands of districts have devoted substantial portions of their federal COVID relief funds to long-awaited projects like upgrading ventilation systems, fixing leaky roofs, and replacing outdated technology. An Associated Press analysis found that poorer districts were far more likely than their wealthier counterparts to invest these funds in facilities upgrades.

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Slightly more than half of school and district leaders who answered the EdWeek Research Center survey said one major facilities challenge is navigating the skyrocketing cost of labor and materials for construction and renovation projects.

And for many, finding enough workers to keep school buildings humming is a challenge that’s only grown more difficult since the pandemic began, said Keith Watkins, director of facilities for the New Rochelle district in New York.

At one time, his 107-person maintenance staff was missing 11 key employees. More recently, applicants have started to return in greater numbers—but many lack the wide range of qualifications, including having passed required state exams, for the positions they seek.

“I think we need to be in the business of making sure everyone is successful,” Watkins said. “Providing on-the-job training, assigning somebody a mentor, that would go a long ways for people feeling confident that for the job they’re looking to attain, they have the skills to do it.”

Watkins’ district offers overtime pay for workers to clean and address building issues at night and on weekends. But not every district can afford the cost of additional labor from already-overworked employees.

When key facilities positions aren’t filled, workers have little time to focus on pursuing big projects.

“You’re going to do the things you have to do because you don’t have enough people to sort between the stuff you should be doing proactively and preventatively versus reactively,” said Lander Medlin, president and CEO of APPA, formerly known as the Association of Physical Plant Administrators, a membership organization for facilities chiefs in K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and other public institutions.

Medlin calls this approach “deferred capital renewal.”

“You’re basically compromising the longest life cycle you could have gotten out of that system,” she said.

What can the government do?

A lack of financial support from the state and federal governments and local taxpayers were the next most commonly cited school building-related challenges in the EdWeek Research Center survey.

President Joe Biden’s 2021 proposal to supply schools with $100 billion in grants and bonds to upgrade their buildings would represent the first major federal investment in school facilities since the Great Depression of the 1930s. But it has yet to pass a divided Congress.

The federal government has, however, recently taken steps to scrutinize local school facility disparities.

Last fall, at the prompting of a parent, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began investigating whether the New Hanover district in North Carolina is violating federal law by providing cleaner, safer, and more modern school buildings for majority-white student populations than for schools that serve primarily students of color. A spokesperson for the department said the investigation is ongoing but declined to comment further until it’s complete.

The district has struggled to balance modernization of its existing facilities in some areas with the need for new buildings in other places, Josh Smith, a spokesperson for the New Hanover schools, wrote in an email.

“Like many school systems across the nation, we face significant challenges in maintaining and upgrading aging building infrastructure while also providing teachers with the spaces they need for flexible, engaging learning environments,” Smith wrote.

Experts say it’s likely the phenomenon of facilities inequities goes well beyond New Hanover.

“I think there are probably hundreds of these complaints that could be filed right now,” said David Sciarra, retiring executive director of the Education Law Center, a nationwide nonprofit that helps lead lawsuits and conduct research on school funding.

Indeed, states’ role in funding school building improvements is the subject of legal scrutiny in several states.

The administration of Arizona’s newly elected governor Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, last December signaled its desire to reach a settlement with school district plaintiffs from a lawsuit alleging the state has fallen short of obligations to monitor school building needs and fund improvements.

And in Washington state, the Wahkiakum district will go before the state Supreme Court later this year to argue that the state is obligated to ensure equitable facilities for all students.

The district’s lawyers argued in a court filing last fall that excluding facilities from what the state is obligated to support “would effectively rob children in school districts like Wahkiakum of the amply funded education to which Washington law declares they have a positive constitutional right.”

All of these cases address inequities from the past. But district leaders and principals are also keeping an eye on the future.

Thirteen percent of those who answered the EdWeek Research Center survey said a major barrier to maintaining strong school facilities is keeping up with constantly changing best practices around safety and modern technology.

The pace of changes that will burden school facilities with new challenges is hardly slowing down.

Declining birth rates will mean enrollment drops in many places as the nation’s senior population grows. Climate change will wreak havoc on weather conditions and topography in many areas. More advanced digital technology will require workers to have IT skills that might not have been necessary when they got into the field.

Facilities and maintenance workers are more than capable of tackling pressing issues that arise daily in school buildings, Medlin said. But if that’s all they’re doing, at the expense of preparing for the future, “it just compounds the other issues.”

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2023 edition of Education Week as Many Educators Give Their School Buildings Low Grades. There’s No Big Fix in Sight

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