President Donald Trump talked about infrastructure spending in his state-of-the-union address. So far, it doesn’t look like school construction will be part of the package.
But any infrastructure bill will need bipartisan support, and new resources for school facilities are something Democrats are definitely in favor of.
No one may be watching the outcome of this debate more closely than the Impact Aid community.
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.
Congress has been reluctant to provide grants for general school construction. A proposal for school construction grants didn’t even make it into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which passed when Democrats had huge margins in both chambers of Congress and controlled the White House. But 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 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. In fact, last summer, NAFIS surveyed 218 districts in 37 states and found that 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 their 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 State, 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 what facilities in nearby districts, Guaglianone said. “Everything leaks. Even the bricks leak. Every year something goes out in a building this old.”
The student body has long since 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, which will help. But it would, “be really nice if the federal government [lent a hand] because we are on federally impacted lands,” he said.
Other districts have taken on debt to cover construction costs. The Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School 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 impact 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.”
Photo: Buildings in the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District had rot and decay, peeling lead paint, and asbestos. Used with permission from the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District.