Replacing Arizona's Roofs

During a state-mandated inspection of K-12 schools across Arizona, for example, consultants examining one building found that a young but fully formed tree had taken root on a section of roof cluttered with dirt and debris. Apparently, no one had checked that roof for several years.

Nor has that tree proven to be an anomaly in Arizona. Many of the state’s public schools require substantial roof maintenance if not complete roof replacements.

What's Up?

According to Dr. Philip E. Geiger, executive director of the State of Arizona School Facilities Board, Arizona’s 1,210 public schools require approximately $500 million in roofing work to meet the requirements of state legislation called Students FIRST.

Students FIRST not only set standards; it required the School Facilities Board to conduct a physical examination of each and every Arizona K-12 public school. The board hired Flex-Tech Professional Services of Phoenix and Sandusky, Ohio, a consulting firm, to carry out the survey.

The statewide school facilities evaluation produced a stunning conclusion: Bringing Arizona’s schools up to minimum standards would cost $1.2 billion for maintenance and renovation work and another $1 billion for new school construction.

Approximately $500 million of the $1.2 billion renovation tab will go toward roofs, says Geiger. “We are still defining the scope of this work in each of the school districts,” he continues. “So I can’t be specific about how many built-up roofs and how many metal roofs need what kind of work. We’re still sorting through this information. In many cases, however, we are looking at total roof replacements. Many Arizona schools are now 20 to 30 years old, with their original roofs reaching the end of their normal life span.”

Add to that the severe heat in Arizona and the lack of roof maintenance in a number of schools and the result is a state school system with a big roofing problem.

The hot climate and poor maintenance have caused the lion’s share of roof problems in Arizona. But many repair and replacement orders have resulted from poor roofing design, particularly in schools using metal roofs, according to Jim Cherry, a school facilities specialist working with the School Facilities Board. “While metal roofs can resist the Arizona heat, some metal roof designs aren’t appropriate,” Cherry says. “One of our schools, for example, had an eight-sided library design with raised ridge beams rising up to a fluted center with a large skylight. The design called for far too many pieces of metal and too many seams. It was a beautiful design, but the wrong roof material for the building.”

Roofing design problems aside, the most severely compromised roofs probably show up in rural and urban school districts. As might be expected, the wealthier, suburban districts face minimal expenses.

While the roofing costs have not been broken out according to rural, urban and suburban needs, the School Facilities Board estimates that overall facility renovations will cost approximately $967,000 per school in rural areas; $858,000 per school in older urban areas; and $142,000 per school in the newer suburbs.

Repair or Replace?

One might assume that roof repair and maintenance costs will follow a pattern similar to overall facility renovation needs.

Indeed, the largest percentage of roofs that need replacing appear to be built up roofs installed 25 to 30 years ago, according to Cherry. “These are generally hot tar mop roofs covered with composition paper with some type of sealer on top,” he says.

Because of safety and environmental concerns, hot tar roofs for the most part will not be repaired. Instead, they will be replaced with a newer roofing technology. “Most of the districts are going to foam-type roofs,” Cherry says. “A good foam roof starts with tearing off the existing materials, checking the under-layment and repairing it if necessary. Next you spray on the foam, add a stiff insulator board, apply a second layer of foam and an epoxy cap.’

But foam roofs must be installed properly to avoid maintenance problems, as well, continues Cherry. “Some districts have opted to install foam roofs on top of mop-on built up roofs,” he says. “But this must be done in a certain way. An improperly installed foam roof may only last four or five years.”

The cost of foam roofing is more reasonable than other materials. In the region around Phoenix, according to Cherry, a foam roof might cost approximately $4 per square foot, while alternatives may range from $6.50 to $12 per square foot, with the higher cost ranges going for shingle and metal roofs respectively.

As in most states, Arizona schools use several kinds of roofing on single buildings. Tar, modified bituminous, and now foam cover the flat roofs, while shingles and metal cover sloped roof designs.

Footing the Bill

The good news for Arizona’s schools is that the state intends to pay the entire $1.2 billion, including the $500 million roofing component, necessary to bringing every school in the state up to the minimum standards set by Students FIRST.

The current schedule calls for completing the work by 2003. After that, the cost of maintaining the facilities will once again fall to individual school districts.

To get from here to 2003, Arizona will provide annual renewal funding to each of the 228 school districts in the state. “This money will not go for maintenance,” Geiger says. “It will be earmarked for capital repairs that may need to be made to extend a building’s life, including roof repairs and replacements. The state will also demand some level of accountability to insure that the money is spent appropriately.”

Each district must report to the state on where, when and how the renewal funds were spent each year. In addition, the state plans to inspect every school in Arizona every five years, grading each against the Students FIRST minimum standards. Facilities that don’t measure up will have to be repaired with funds drawn from district budgets.

What happens if a school can’t afford repairs in the future? “There is nothing in the law today that says what would happen if that occurs,” Geiger says. “Our hope is that, by giving the districts renewal dollars fully funded by the state, the districts will have several years between now and 2003 to create reserve funds to take care of future capital spending needs.”

Geiger speculates that districts failing to make provisions for future maintenance needs may have to deal with some form of punitive legislation.

The Arizona program has its roots in a lawsuit brought by five school districts that could not afford to maintain their facilities to minimum standards. The case moved up through the system to the State Supreme Court, which agreed with the school district plaintiffs and demanded that the state legislature set things right. The resulting Students FIRST legislation set minimum standards (including roofs) that all schools must now meet.

It’s a massively expensive undertaking that will touch virtually every public school building in the state. “We’re approaching this with the attitude that we only want to do it once,” Cherry says. “We want to do it right the first time and not have to do it again in 10 years. So we’re looking at each individual roof and making a decision about the best way to fix it. Cost, of course, is a factor, but not the primary factor. Our primary goal is to make sure that the roofs we install now will last.”

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with experience in education issues.