$542 billion needed to upgrade nation's school facilities

$542 billion needed to upgrade nation's school facilities

America’s elementary and secondary public school infrastructure needs $542 billion over the next 10 years to upgrade existing facilities so they meet modern education, safety and health standards, the Center for Green Schools estimates.

The 2013 State of Schools Report—the first of what the center says will be an annual document—concedes that the cost estimate is a “best guess” because comprehensive information is not available. To remedy that, the report calls on Congress to order an updated study on the condition of the nation’s school facilities.

“Lack of sufficient, comparable (state-to-state and year-to-year) facility data aligned to basic education data is hindering our ability to address the safety, health, educational and environmental challenges of our public school facilities,” the report asserts.

Better information will enable school district to allocate their limited resources more effectively. “We must account for the assets and liabilities associated with the management, planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance of school buildings and grounds,” the report says. “By collecting current, comprehensive and comparable school data, we can become more responsible stewards of our public school facilities.”

The report urges the federal government to:

  • Expand the Common Core of Data collected annually by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to include school-level data on building age, building size and site size.
  • Improve school district’s reporting of maintenance and operations data to the NCES so that utility expenditures and maintenance expenditures are collected separately.
  • Improve the collection of data from school districts to include identification of the source of capital outlay funding and distinctions between capital outlay categories for new construction and for existing facilities.
  • Carry out a Government Accountability Office (GAO) facility condition survey immediately, and mandate that such a survey is done every 10 years.

The most recent GAO report on school facilities was released in 1995. President Bill Clinton says in a forward to the Center for Green Schools report that his administration generated the GAO report as part of an effort to begin a national conversation on the need for improving education facilities. But the conversation has not resulted in enough action, and school facility needs continue to grow.

“Nearly 20 years later…we are still struggling to provide equal opportunity when it comes to the upkeep, maintenance and modernization of our schools and classrooms,” Clinton says.

The 1995 GAO report determined that $112 billion was needed to eliminate deferred maintenance and bring school facilities into good repair. The center notes that the estimate “did not include the cost of any new construction for enrollment growth, nor did it project how much it would cost to modernize public school facilities for educational purposes.

Based on subsequent studies, the center’s report estimates that in 2008, deferred maintenance needs in U.S. school districts amount to $271 billion. Upgrading facilities to meet modern educational needs would be even more costly.

“If schools were to be modernized on a 25-year lifecycle—a defensible schedule, given rapid changes in building technology, educational demands and population change—$542 billion would be required over the next 10 years to modernize our pre-K through 12th grade education infrastructure,” the report states.

That amount does not include costs of new construction to address enrollment increases, the report adds.

The center notes in the report that some federal agencies have programs to help school systems improve their facilities, but says the efforts “are extremely limited and tend to be ad hoc and isolated.”

The report includes a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate education committees seeking their help in having the GAO carry out a new assessment of the condition of the nation’s public school facilities.

“The anecdotal data and less comprehensive reports issued since the 1995 GAO study have suggested that our nation’s educational facilities are continuing to deteriorate without proper maintenance, and that the comprehensive understanding of the current conditions of our nation’s educational facilities is lacking,” the letter says.

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