Budget & Finance

School Buildings Are Crumbling. Here’s Why It’s So Hard to Fix Them

By Mark Lieberman — June 25, 2021 10 min read
Image of an excavator in front of a school building.
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The projected cost of building a safe room to protect kindergarteners from tornadoes in Sikeston, Mo., unexpectedly tripled this spring, leaving the district unsure whether the project can continue. Students and staff in Clatskanie, Ore., are praying that an HVAC system that flooded a high school three times last school year will hold out through this winter. Education officials in Virginia worry that limits on using federal stimulus funds for improving K-12 infrastructure will lead to wasteful spending on half-measures to fix buildings that should be replaced.

With COVID-19 spread beginning to recede, and state legislatures firming up K-12 spending for next year, school officials and policy makers are confronting a thorny perennial challenge: maintaining and improving school buildings so they’re safe and appealing for students, staff, and the broader public to visit daily.

It’s a formidable task, given the dismal state of school buildings and the hundreds of billions of dollars in repairs that would be necessary to fix them. State funding for school construction varies widely, with a handful of states providing no support. Local funding for complex projects often hinges on a strong property tax base and the ability to levy additional taxes from voters—putting high-poverty areas at a disadvantage.

Students in districts with poor facilities notice the difference when they visit nearby schools with more modern infrastructure, said Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund and a vocal advocate for more-robust funding for school infrastructure.

“If we’re going to be competitive in the world, and if we’re not just gonna write off whole swaths of people, we’ve got to do something different,” she said.

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A worker finishes up for the day at the Cardoza Senior High School, as renovations are under way, Monday, March 11, 2013 in Washington.
A worker finishes up for the day at the Cardoza Senior High School, as renovations are under way, Monday, March 11, 2013 in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP

Advocates for federal help have some high-profile supporters. President Joe Biden has proposed a federal investment in school infrastructure unmatched since the 1930s—$50 billion in grants and $50 billion in bonds. During a budget hearing last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona reiterated his support for the package, telling lawmakers he was disturbed during a recent trip to Philadelphia to see century-old school buildings with windows lead-painted shut.

But this week Biden and a bipartisan group of senators proposed an infrastructure plan that does not include funding for school buildings. Many Democrats hope to pair the bipartisan agreement with a bigger investment package, which could include school funding. It’s unclear whether that proposal will materialize and gain enough support to pass along party lines in the Senate.

As members of Congress continue to jockey over new iterations of a spending plan for a broad range of priorities, from roads and bridges to child care and broadband, schools and the facilities experts who work with them aren’t assuming the resulting infrastructure package will include investment in K-12 schools. But more federal support would certainly be welcome, they say.

Education Week talked to district leaders, school construction advocates and consultants, and state school facilities coordinators to get a sense of the current landscape. Here are some of the key issues schools are facing as they try to ensure their buildings meet the needs of students.

COVID-19 has scrambled the supply chain for labor and materials

Raw materials and qualified contractors are two of the crucial building blocks for a school construction project—and the market for both is volatile right now.

Experts on school facilities say there’s a nationwide shortage of highly skilled workers who can handle the complexities of maintenance projects like patching roofs and replacing leaky pipes, as well as construction projects like building a new addition or a new school.

Material costs, meanwhile, are fluctuating wildly. Some, like steel, have gone up considerably in recent months, driving up the overall cost of a project and putting the squeeze on districts with limited funds to shift to an unexpectedly costly initiative. Others, like the cost of lumber, appear to be on a downward trend, for now at least, after a period of inflation.

Demand for materials, meanwhile, is steadily increasing, as people are venturing out to build homes and revive construction projects that lay dormant during the pandemic.

Spikes in materials costs appear to be driven by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic: Steel and mill workers staying home for required social distancing, getting sick, or losing their jobs amid nationwide economic upheaval.

“It’s changing weekly, the cost of materials,” said Melanie Drerup, chief of planning for the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission. “It’s really hard for our professionals to keep up with the costing and to have accurate estimates.”

Schools plan construction projects years in advance and struggle to fit them into a tight schedule during summer months when fewer students and staff are in the building. Fluctuating costs can scramble these planning efforts, and the finished product can suffer as a result.

Rules for spending federal stimulus funds are confusing, and timelines are short

Schools can spend some of their federal stimulus dollars on construction projects—but only on certain kinds of projects, and in many cases only with multiple layers of approval from state and federal governments.

Recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Education lists construction as an eligible use of stimulus dollars, if the district can explain how the project relates to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Replacing HVAC units is likely to be acceptable; building a new gymnasium might not be.

Schools run into all sorts of other bureaucratic hurdles when they use federal funds for construction. Federal regulations for construction projects set minimum base pay for workers that might in some areas exceed districts’ project budgets. Districts have to start this summer firming up plans to spend stimulus dollars within roughly the next three years, which could limit investments in projects that would take longer to ramp up.

“If you think through what you need in your recipe, you go to the store and be selective and efficient, versus, ‘We’ve got to do something in an hour,’” said Bob Gorrell, executive director of Maryland’s Interagency Commission on Public School Construction. “All of these ESSER dollars that are coming to the [local school districts], it’s definitely going to be the latter.”

Some school districts, usually in wealthier areas, also received minimal to no stimulus aid through the federal Title I formula, which means their allocation is more likely to go to covering pandemic-related costs or preparing learning acceleration programs.

All of these pressures could lead some districts to be less ambitious with their design planning, or to hold off on necessary work until a later date, said Joe Dixon, a former school facilities administrator in California public schools who now consults with school districts across the state.

He recently helped one district in California plan to replace its portable classrooms using $20 million of stimulus funds. But another district he’s helping, in Berry Creek, Calif., is reeling after wildfires burned down a 60-student school in September. The district got only a few hundred dollars per student from federal stimulus aid. California offers per-student grants for facilities upgrades, and Berry Creek got $240,000.

“That’s not going to pay the architect,” let alone the construction itself, Dixon said.

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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..
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..
Alex Boerner for Education Week

Cheap projects can lead to more expensive ones

Some school buildings are so old that it would be cheaper to tear them down and build a new ones than to repair individual facets. Nearly a decade ago, the average age of school buildings was 44 years old, and that number has almost certainly risen since then, experts say.

In other cases, replacing an HVAC unit or improving broadband strength is impossible because the parts or equipment that fit with existing systems are out of date and no longer on the market. During mandatory remote learning in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, some students trying to learn from school parking lots couldn’t access Wi-Fi because the buildings’ aging concrete walls masked the signal.

The backlog of necessary work can be daunting. During the last school year, the HVAC system at Clatskanie Middle/High School in Oregon ruptured three times, flooding the main office, the preschool area, and hallways on two floors. A science teacher was displaced from his classroom and had to spend the second half of the year teaching remotely.

The 720-student district, where 46 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, is using federal stimulus funds to make up for a budget shortfall at the state level, and on replacing worn-out Chromebooks. Instead, the district turned to voters, who just passed a referendum to renew an expiring $10 million bond for facilities work.

That bond also makes the district eligible for $4 million in additional state aid. Still, Cathy Hurowitz, the district’s superintendent, worries it won’t be enough. Community members also want an upgraded track, a refurbished auditorium, smoother parking lots, and more architectural separation between the middle and high school portions of the district’s school that currently houses grades 6 through 12.

“Everybody wants a brand-new looking type school, and I’m not sure we’re going to be able to do that,” Hurowitz said.

When you plan for your facility, you need for it to be a facility that will last and be able to respond to changes in educational delivery.

Virginia’s superintendent for public instruction, James Lane, recently studied the state’s new capital funding for schools and found that efforts to modernize or revamp buildings often cost nearly as much as simply replacing them. But replacing them takes longer, and requires more state and local investment.

“I would not assume you’d get the same longevity out of renovation as you would with a brand-new school,” Lane told lawmakers earlier this month, according to the Virginia Mercury.

The Jackson school district in Mississippi uses portable classrooms to supplement its brick-and-mortar school buildings, some of which are more than 50 years old. Just last year, the district passed a $65 million bond to start addressing a backlog of maintenance and plan for expansions or additions.

But in the meantime, portable classrooms cost more to maintain than the regular school buildings, said Joe Albright, the district’s chief operating officer.

“Whatever it takes to move us out of those, which are definitely not even designed to be long-term learning environments, or even long-term structures period, I want to be able to do that,” Albright said.

Every region of the country has unique environmental challenges

In the Sikeston district in Missouri, protecting students from severe weather threats is top of mind. Thousands of miles north, in Alaska, river and sea erosion and unpredictable seasonal storm patterns brought on by climate change are driving school infrastructure costs.

The state recently spent four years pulling together funding for a $60 million effort to relocate a 150-student school building in the Kivalina community from a barrier island on the Arctic Ocean onto more solid ground, said Tim Mearig, facilities manager for the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development. Several similar projects, in the $40 million to $50 million range, are on the horizon, he said.

In California, ventilation upgrades have to take into account the prospect of wildfires and their effect on air quality. Students in Baltimore and New Jersey have had to stay home on several occasions in recent weeks because buildings—some with air conditioning installed, others without—got too hot.

These examples highlight the difficulty of a one-size-fits-all solution to funding and shaping efforts to improve school facilities. The stakes are high for communities, which have needs and expectations that vary widely.

Drerup, the Ohio facilities chief, recommends schools prioritize engaging with the community to figure out the way forward on improving infrastructure.

“It’s generally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because these buildings are built to last for at least 40 years, if not longer,” she said. “When you plan for your facility, you need for it to be a facility that will last and be able to respond to changes in educational delivery.”

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