A Final Thought

Wakeup Call

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 educational program.

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 issue of .

About the Author

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."