Building Boom

Flush with cash, cities take on big school repair jobs.

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After years of neglect, schools in big cities nationwide echoed this summer with the sound of hammers, chain saws, and drills.

"School construction has reached an all-time high," says Joe Agron, editor in chief of American School & University, an industry magazine that tracks construction trends. Last year, according to an annual nationwide survey by the magazine, some $17.1 billion was spent on building and repairs, up from $14.9 billion in 1997. "We're seeing a lot of that work in the largest school districts," Agron notes.

Detroit officials planned to spend some $80 million this summer to repair and restore the most decrepit of its 263 schools. Workers replaced roofs and windows, repaired restrooms, and painted and polished hallways and classrooms. In Chicago, a major capital-improvement plan continued, as crews rushed to finish three new schools and four multistory additions. Officials also scheduled work to improve access for the disabled, modernize high school science labs, refurbish restrooms, and paint classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias.

Meanwhile, some 20,000 New York City construction workers spread out this summer over about 600 school construction or renovation projects. The New York City School Construction Authority aims to add 16,000 new seats to the 1.1 million-student system.

Big cities have seen a flurry of activity because they have the biggest pot of construction dollars and the largest number of dilapidated schools, according to Agron. Political leaders also have made fixing schools a top priority. "The political will is great, and the know-how is there," says Paul Abramson, a school construction consultant and editorial director of the trade magazine School Planning & Management. "It's not just education people talking about [fixing schools] anymore. It's coming from the mayors and governors now, too--political people who know how to get things done."

In many cases, construction and repair projects are following decades of deterioration and neglect of city schools. Generations of students have spent their days in rundown buildings, often with leaky roofs, chipped paint, cracked windows, drafty classrooms, and restrooms with broken fixtures and no stall doors.

"The level of support to build and repair schools has been nowhere near what it should have been over the last 20 to 25 years," says Stan Childress, a spokesman for the 174,000- student Detroit school system.

"I can't tell you how excited teachers and principals are to finally get these needs addressed. Principals who usually take a short break over the summer are sticking around to ensure that the projects are handled properly."

Though the nation's booming economy has brightened the financial picture in many districts, it also has a downside for administrators who are scrambling to get schools built or repaired.

In the spring, Detroit officials had to ask the district's largest contractors-who are also busy this summer with big commercial-construction projects that include new football and baseball stadiums and a major airport renovation to make the district's projects a priority

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 28-29

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Building Boom
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