Facilities & Hope

Clearly, schools are not being maintained by an abundance of funding. Not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, administrators are running with the one thing that hasn’t been cut: hope.

“A school draws people to a community and helps keep the community sustainable,” says Irene Nigaglioni, AIA, REFP, a partner with Dallas-based PBK Architects Inc. and chair-elect of the Council for Educational Facilities Planning Inc. (CEFPI) Board of Directors. “It helps a community be a whole community, rather than something that looks like a community but isn’t.”

With that being said, some of our schools are hurting, as noted below, which means some of our communities are hurting. Here’s what’s going on in terms of the condition of our nation’s schools, as well as a look at what’s being done to make improvements. Hint: It involves more hope than funds.

What Are the Deficiencies?

In researching the physical condition of America’s public K-12 schools, it is challenging to find current data and statistics. There’s plenty of information that is 10 or more years old, but very little current information. “I don’t know exactly why this is so,” says Daniel R. Mader, president/CEO of Fanning Howey Associates, Inc., which has offices throughout the United States, and a member of the CEFPI Board of Directors. “I speculate that it is because the funding mechanisms for school construction are state driven. Collecting information from the states would require each state to assess the condition of all its schools in a like manner and report it. That would be an expensive exercise to begin with and, to make the information worthwhile, it would have to be updated on a regular basis.”

Fortunately, one report is just three years old. American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Reston, Va., published a report called 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which included schools and 14 other infrastructures. Schools’ grade was a D. In fact, 4 Cs and 11 Ds were issued, but that’s another article altogether.

ASCE’s report card estimated five-year funding requirements for schools were $160 billion, with estimated spending at $125 billion, leaving a $35 billion projected shortfall.

Compare this to the accumulated backlog of deferred maintenance and repair conservatively estimated of at least $270 billion, as reported by 21st Century School Fund and Economic Policy Institute in August 2011. With the 2008 Great Recession lingering like an in-law, no doubt both numbers are greater now, but how can we know for sure since, as the report card notes, there hasn’t been a comprehensive federal report since the U.S. Department of Education’s Condition of America’s Public School Facilities: 1999?

The report card presents schools’ conditions and concerns, such as decreased spending, increased enrollment and disproportionate distribution of funds. It notes: “Barring dramatic change in economic conditions, the downward trend will likely continue …  gives little hope for improvement.” Before becoming overwhelmed by the challenges that lie ahead, let’s take a closer look by categorizing the condition of our nation’s schools. Mader breaks it into three levels.

“The first is safety and security,” Mader says. “Frankly, I believe that, when you see the statistics about the condition of our schools, they are usually addressing only this level. It includes basic issues like leaking roofs, broken air conditioning systems, sinks that drip, doors that don’t close properly. There is a tremendous amount of deferred maintenance just dealing with these issues.”

The second is the money that’s being wasted through energy-inefficient buildings. “Schools consume energy, and because there are a lot of schools, there is a lot of energy being consumed,” Mader states. “Many have outdated systems, lack of or no insulation and single-pane windows. There’s a great amount of money to be saved in the long run by investing in energy efficiency now.”

The third is educational adequacy, which is what makes an appropriate educational environment. Is there adequate space? Is there an infrastructure for technology? Is there enough electricity to support the technology? Is there natural light? “These are the kinds of things that provide the next level of an educational environment,” Mader observes. “All in all, there’s an unbelievable opportunity and need to deal with issues along all three condition levels, and the first and primary piece is anything related to safety and security.”

The physical condition of America’s schools isn’t the only thing needing a boost, so is technology. In May, State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released The Broadband Imperative: Recommendations to Address K-12 Education Infrastructure Needs. The report examines current trends driving the need for more broadband in teaching, learning and school operations; provides state and district examples of the impact of robust deployment of broadband; and offers specific recommendations for the broadband capacity needed to ensure all students have access to critical tools and resources. Specifically, SETDA recommends that schools will need external Internet connections to their Internet service provider of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2014-15, and of 1Gbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2017-18.

Administrators in Maine, which has long been a leader in leveraging technology for education and realizes the importance of robust broadband access, confirm the report. “Technology and broadband are key to giving students the power to take control of their own learning, and to engage frequently and instantly with learning tools across town and around the world,” says Stephen Bowen, commissioner of Education, Maine Department of Education. “It’s why the Maine Learning Technology Initiative made high-speed Internet at all public schools a requirement.” Hopefully, other states will also be able to stay ahead of the curve.

Just as Maine is a high point for technology, so ASCE’s report card also has a high point. In seeking to answer the question, What can be done to get aging, deteriorating schools back in shape to meet the needs of future generations? The report recommends nine solutions that will work now to raise schools’ infrastructure grade from poor to mediocre, good or even exceptional. They include: “publish regular updates of the Department of Education report Condition of America’s Public School Facilities: 1999 to ensure a clear view of conditions nationwide; expand federal tax credits to support increased use of school construction bonds; continue and increase federal grants for high-poverty, high-need school districts; encourage school districts to explore alternative financing, including lease financing and financing/ownership/use arrangements, to facilitate construction; encourage school districts to adopt regular, comprehensive construction and maintenance programs; increase the emphasis on research and development for design and construction to meet the rapidly changing teaching environment; establish a federal, multiyear capital budget for public works infrastructure construction and rehabilitation similar to those used by state and local governments; encourage the use of life-cycle cost analysis principles to evaluate the total costs of projects; and consider direct federal funding for school construction.”

Where Is the 
Much-Needed Funding?
ASCE’s solutions offer hope in the face of frightening numbers. Still the reality is that solutions, no matter how impressive, can’t be enacted without funding. Here’s what relief looks like on the national level.
Schools received $100 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which included $53.6 billion to prevent layoffs and cutbacks, with flexibility to use the funds for school modernization and repair. It’s a safe bet that districts used that funding to prevent layoffs and cutbacks, prioritizing education above facilities, for which they can’t be faulted. Clearly, those funds are long spent, and there are still leaking roofs and dripping faucets in need of repair.

Another, albeit potential, source of financial assistance is Fix America’s Schools Today (FAST) Act of 2011, a bill that, if passed, would allocate $25 billion sub-grants to modernize, renovate or repair some early learning, elementary or secondary education facilities. Specifically, the money would flow to the 100 districts in each state with the largest numbers of children aged five to 17 living in poverty.

In an announcement issued by the sponsoring organizations — 21st Century School Fund and Economic Policy Institute — in August 2011, program funds would be used for improving air quality and thermal comfort with improvements to HVAC systems; stopping interior damage, including mold, and reducing energy costs with roof replacement and repair; supporting technology, mechanical systems, and modern use of electricity with an electrical system modernization; reducing water consumption, eliminating lead in water, meeting ADA requirements with bathroom and plumbing upgrades; eliminating allergy and asthma triggers, making sure asbestos is contained or eliminated, and creating inviting classroom and school environments with plaster repair and painting; saving energy and increasing daylight with window replacement; improving the school grounds with improvements to outdoor learning and play areas, storm water management, landscaping and environmental cleanup, when necessary; reduce ongoing heating costs with energy-efficient boiler replacement; installing solar panels, wind generators and geothermal or other comparable clean energy generators; and planning the work outlined above and any similar modifications necessary to reduce the consumption of electricity and energy, especially fossil fuels, including natural gas, oil, water or coal.

The bill is a great idea, and the districts receiving the funds would certainly be grateful, if and when it passes, in spite of the fact that it is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall need. It begs the question: What happens if we don’t make education facilities a high priority? “The United States lags behind other countries in education, and a small investment can make a huge difference in how children learn today,” Nigaglioni observes. So the answer is that the longer we wait, the higher the investment becomes and the farther behind our children fall. We remain hopeful, for what else is there? 

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