Education Funding Q&A

No Federal Infrastructure Money? Not OK, Says a Superintendent With Century-Old Buildings

By Mark Lieberman — October 29, 2021 5 min read
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School district leaders who have dealt for years with a backlog of urgent maintenance and renovation needs for their school buildings were dealt a blow last week from the federal government.

A massive spending package still making its way through Congress likely won’t include federal funding to improve school buildings, nearly seven months after President Biden proposed $100 billion in grants and bonds to fix the nation’s K-12 facilities. A White House framework for the investment package includes universal pre-K, teacher pipeline programs, expanded free school meals, and expanded access to home broadband for K-12 students—but nothing to improve the nation’s school buildings, many of which are in major disrepair.

That means the wait for the first substantial federal investment in school buildings since the Great Depression will be even longer for administrators like Andrew O’Leary, assistant superintendent of finance and operations for the New Bedford school district in Massachusetts. The district has 13,000 students—40 percent are Latinx, and more than 70 percent come from low-income families.

Five of the district’s school buildings were constructed more than 100 years ago, three were built before 1940, and 10 were built between 30 and 50 years ago.

Among the problems in the school’s oldest buildings, according to a facilities assessment prepared for the district in July by a contractor:

  • Exposed heating pipes and a buckling wood floor in the gymnasium
  • No sprinkler system
  • No mechanism for measuring air quality and ventilation
  • No elevator for two-story building
  • Basement spaces serve as cafeterias and gymnasiums because the buildings were constructed before those services were components of a traditional school day
  • Windows nearing the end of their useful life
  • Electrical system with insufficient capacity
  • Cracks and holes in the parking lot
  • Water leaking from outside into the walls

Sixty percent of the district’s buildings require moderate renovation, and 16 percent require extensive renovation, O’Leary said.

O’Leary had hoped to tap into federal funding from the infrastructure plan to tackle some ambitious, long-needed facilities projects. Now he’s scaling back his ambitions.

“Districts are held to a high standard for credentialing and staff performance,” O’Leary said. “To have working conditions like this, it’s daily demoralizing to staff.”

For now, districts will have to continue to cobble together state and local funds for capital improvement projects, even as the costs and logistical challenges around those projects continue to grow, particularly for schools and districts that disproportionately serve high-need students.

The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What are the biggest facilities needs in your district right now?

We have 100-year-old buildings, which in some cases are pre-World War I. We have buildings that came in the ‘60s and ‘70s, during urban renewal and the baby boom. Then a gap, and more modern buildings. It’s a real struggle to try and maintain a preventative maintenance plan for those buildings, and then to try and push them into state-sponsored renovation or replacement plans, given our city’s limitations in terms of bonding capacity. A federal intervention would have been welcome. It’s not just about an initial pot of money when districts are dealing with legacy costs.

How are financial pressures constraining the district’s ability to move forward?

For the 1920s buildings, we want a modern HVAC system. The buildings actually have a lot more needs in terms of all of the systems in the building—electricity, water penetration in the brick, they’re not [Americans with Disabilities Act] accessible. The buildings really need to be tackled in an integrated fashion. The best way to do that is a replacement, or a large-scale renovation. However those cycles require state sponsorship and local sponsorship. It takes a very long time to execute. It’s so contingent on bureaucratic hoops and the money being available. Every time you do that it’s getting more and more costly. It’s almost like we need a recognition of that and funding to match that’s available for multiple years, that can be combined with other funding, that it’s done with the understanding of the bureaucratic hoops that you’re going to need to overcome.

To what extent can state and local funding help?

What we do see is larger high schools being built in affluent districts. They are able to do that even with a 40 percent reimbursement [from the state]. Cities like New Bedford, Lynn, and Lowell, [Massachusetts] cities that have lost industry over the decade, those cities still have the oldest schools, the least accessible schools, the most-compromised schools. In theory we can get 60 percent to 80 percent matching funds from the state, but even that 20 percent match is difficult to acquire. Then, even in cities like New Bedford that have good bond ratings, there are competing pressures, be it sewer systems or other municipal infrastructure. Districts have to compete for a piece of that pie. That’s really slowed the replacement process for us.

How much would it cost to replace your buildings versus renovating them?

A replacement is the easiest solution. For the five pre-war elementaries, replacement would be about $50 million each. But a major renovation that makes it accessible, that makes all the systems work and removes any compromising issues with the system, would be about $7 million to $8 million. If we were to put $8 million into one of those pre-war buildings, we could extend the useful life for 25 to 30 years. We’re thinking that might be the most realistic route.

We are tagged with the mark of having crumbling schools and not being able to provide an ideal learning environment.

How would the federal funding have helped?

Any increase in federal funding, given the GAO reports [showing the widespread deterioration of facilities in schools nationwide], would be welcome. The federal money could have sponsored investment in the useful life of buildings, especially if it were fungible enough to match with other funds.

See Also

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

How are students and staff affected by school buildings that haven’t been modernized?

In 2021 to think that buildings are not ADA accessible—districts are held to a high standard for credentialing and staff performance. To have working conditions like this, it’s daily demoralizing to staff. You get into, inevitably, safety issues. At some point if districts aren’t constantly monitoring these, safety issues are going to continue.

If districts are looking to compete on school choice and provide great learning environments, they’re carrying these legacy costs and can’t compete with a charter or another district that can issue a bond more easily, or doesn’t have to build a building to the same municipal standards. We’re losing out there as well, through no fault of administrations in districts. We are tagged with the mark of having crumbling schools and not being able to provide an ideal learning environment.

There is an opportunity here, just as what was done in the 1920s or post-war, to invest in the next generation of students.

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