A Final Thought
- By Paul Abramson
- April 1st, 2016
Over the last decade, public
schools in the United States have been
attacked and rocked on a variety of
fronts having to do with the success — or lack
of success — of their students. The attacks have
come from the federal government through
its No Student Left Behind legislation, state
governments, charter school operators, private
companies wishing to transfer public funds into private coffers, the
testing industry and many others.
In the last six months, the tide has begun to change, though
charter school advocates and others continue to press their case.
Led by community activists around the nation, by individual
mothers who kept their children away from standardized tests,
by administrators and teachers who protested having to “teach
to the test” and by the demise of “No Child Left Behind,” schools
are slowly returning to an even keel, providing children with the
best education they can and doing so without the threat of federal
mandates. The period of teachers being judged by how children do
on standardized tests has, hopefully, passed.
Now there is a new (or rather continuing) challenge that school
leaders must face — an area that too often has been ignored in the
past. Their physical facilities, the school buildings themselves, are
desperately in need of upgrading, not only to fix immediate and
obvious problems (see lead leaching into school water fountains),
but to make the buildings capable of providing a 21st-century
Lead leads the way
By now, everybody is familiar with the Flint, Mich., problem
with lead in the municipal water — the result of neglect and
shortcuts. It was not specifically a school problem, though the
mental health of school age children was most at risk, but it served
as something of a wakeup call for many school districts, especially
those with buildings more than 75 years old.
As an example, school officials in Newark, N.J., decided to test
their school drinking water and found lead. Soon other districts
began to test. The result was unsettling — district after district
found traces of lead in the water, specifically in some of their
drinking fountains. Members of the New Jersey legislature were
so concerned they proposed to come up with millions of dollars to
test every school’s water and eliminate the problem.
The lead problem is a good wakeup call for districts (and
municipalities) across the nation. But contaminated water, while it
may be the most immediate concern, is hardly the only challenge
facing school districts and their physical facilities.
A new report from the Green Building Council estimates that
school districts need to spend $145 billion annually on building
maintenance, operations and renewal and an additional $10 billion
on new construction. In 2014 dollars, actual spending is estimated
at about $99 billion, leaving a $46 billion annual gap.
This is nothing new for school districts. When the US Government
Accountability Office (GAO) carried out the last in-depth
federal study of school facilities in 1995, it estimated that school
districts needed to invest $112 billion immediately just to bring
existing school facilities to “good condition.” Since then, political
pressure to hold down taxes down has made it difficult or impossible
for schools to keep up with, much less catch up on, their
physical facility needs.
A history lesson
Forty years ago, when OPEC caused fuel costs in the United States
to soar, I was asked to carry out a study for what was then called
The Federal Energy Agency, on the effect of increased fuel costs on
school districts across the nation. That study helped shine a light on
the condition of most of our nation’s schools — constructed with no
insulation, huge expanses of single-pane glass and other energy-consuming
features — and moved Congress to provide funds to
help “button up” thousands of needy school buildings.
(In defense of the school leaders of the time, many of those schools
were built during the Baby Boom when buildings had to be built and
opened as quickly as possible to accommodate children knocking at
the door, and when gas, oil and electricity were being purchased for
pennies and were not a significant drain on school budgets. The Arab
oil boycott brought an end to that kind of construction.)
I bring this up in the hope that perhaps the discovery of lead
in school (and community) drinking water, and the devastating
effect that can have on children, might spur today’s political and
educational leaders to demand that once again the Federal Government
step in to help close the gap between what school districts
are currently spending on their buildings and what is needed. I am
not sure that today’s political climate will allow that, but perhaps
leaders of both parties could be convinced that the health of the
nation’s children demands it.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.
Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."