Pass or Fail

June 1, 1999
Call Harold Ott selfish. He can live with that.What Ott, the superintendent of the Whitepine School District in northern Idaho, can't live with is the

Call Harold Ott selfish. He can live with that.

What Ott, the superintendent of the Whitepine School District in northern Idaho, can't live with is the dilapidated and potentially dangerous condition of Troy Junior-Senior High School, one of two high school buildings in his 680-student district.

So, after voters last year resoundingly rejected a $7.2 million plan that would have paid for a new high school, Ott felt he could no longer remain in charge of the district he has led for seven years. Rather than continue to oversee the broken-down 94-year-old school building and constantly worry about the safety of students and staff, Ott is quitting to take a superintendent's job 35 miles away.

"This is a 1905 building," says Ott. "It has failed three safety inspections. If it continues to fail two more years, the school can become non-accredited, and the district will lose state funding."

Whitepine's plight, while an extreme example, is not an isolated situation.

As thousands of school buildings across the country creep into middle age and beyond, more and more districts are having to confront the reality of aging infrastructure. At the same time, larger-than-ever school enrollments mean many districts have to find the resources to add space, as well as keep their existing facilities up to par.

Districts' track records in gaining the funds to fix or replace their inadequate buildings are as varied as districts themselves. Some, like Whitepine, can't convince voters that a new school would be better in the long run. Others, like the Gettysburg, Pa., District, have won funding for a new school only after years of working through the pros and cons. And some, like the San Diego Public Schools, mount a grassroots effort and are able to win approval for a massive and wide-ranging building and renovation effort.

But even school systems that have made substantial inroads in preserving and restoring their infrastructure admit that they have earned only an incomplete grade.

"We came up with a list of $4 billion in projects," says Bruce Husson, deputy administrative officer of the business services division for San Diego Public Schools. "The $1.5 billion in the bond issue (approved in November) covers just the highest-priority projects."

A midlife crisis Like the baby-boom generation that filled their classrooms for years, America's schools are reaching middle age, and in many cases not very gracefully.

The National Center for Education Statistics says that after 40 years a building begins to deteriorate rapidly, and after 60 years most schools are abandoned. But districts dependent on financial support from the public or governmental bodies haven't always been given the budget flexibility to repair, renovate or replace their buildings when problems first surface.

The result? School buildings that routinely are asked to serve beyond their life expectancies-and upkeep and repair frequently takes a back seat to more pressing budgetary concerns.

In 1998, the average U.S. public school building was 42 years old. Twenty-eight percent of public schools were built before 1950. Seventy-three percent of all U.S. public school buildings had gone through at least one renovation.

The statistics translate into billions of dollars in deferred maintenance: leaky roofs, weakened walls, inefficient and overworked electrical systems, faltering boilers, crumbling foundations and inadequately sized classrooms.

Convincing a community to give up on an aging, but often beloved school building can involve more than facts and figures.

Heart vs. head In Idaho's Whitepine School District, Ott was confident he had the facts on his side. The district had two high school buildings, each with about 100 students, only 12 miles apart. Built in 1905, Troy Junior-Senior High School is saddled with inadequate and potentially dangerous fire escapes and exits. Even if the dilapidated building could be upgraded, it would still be ill-equipped to satisfy the demands of modern education.

"Obviously a building built in 1905 that has had only minor renovations is not designed to meet the educational needs of the 21st century," notes Ott.

A $7.2 million bond proposal would have solved those problems by combining students from Troy and Deary into a new high school. The state provides no funding for construction or renovations, so Whitepine took its case to voters in November.

They overwhelming repudiated the plan. It needed two-thirds approval and received only 42 percent.

Giving up the local identities of the two schools was too high an emotional price to pay for a modern high school.

"People don't want to give up their identities," says Ott. "They can't put it aside. It's an unsafe building, and there's no economy of scale. Your head tells you one thing, but your heart tells you another. The two schools don't want to be together."

Since the proposal failed, the state of Idaho has added insult to injury by threatening to take away $200,000 in aid. Under state guidelines, Whitepine's two high schools are too close together to receive separate funding.

Ott says the district is fighting that decision and also is one of more than 30 districts that have sued the state of Idaho for not providing adequate funding for school construction.

In the meantime, the Troy school continues to age, and Ott has decided he can't do any more. At the end of the school year, he'll become superintendent in nearby Lapwai, Idaho.

"For the last two years, I have spent all my time on facilities issues," says Ott. "After 34 years, I didn't want to end my career this way."

Getting past the past In Gettysburg, Pa., the community confronted similar emotional hurdles before it reached consensus and was able to build a $40 million high school that opened last year.

"It was a very bumpy road," says Gettysburg Superintendent David Mowery. "It took almost 10 years in the planning."

The 3,700-student district had one high school, built in 1962. "It was too old, too small, not easily upgraded," says Mowery. "There was not a lot of room to add or renovate."

But it was the building in the center of town where many in the community had spent their formative years.

"There was an emotional attachment to the building," says Mowery. "People who went there believed it should stay there."

Eventually, the school board gave the go-ahead for the new building. The old high school is being converted into an elementary school for grades 4 and 5.

"There was a major commitment by the community," says Mowery. "It understands the connection between the quality of the building and the quality of education."

The district took extra steps to ensure that people in Gettysburg embraced the new high school. The school's walking track is available morning and evening for exercise; the auditorium is regularly used by outside groups; and the community college uses classroom space in the evenings. And the school itself has caught up with modern standards.

"The space is the main thing," says Mowery. "We have more room to do things. Plus, we're now totally up on technology."

Proposition MM-More Money San Diego Public Schools had a somewhat larger sales job to persuade its constituents about the district's needs. Maintenance and repairs often were neglected in the 1980s and early 1990s, and many of the district's 167 schools were plagued by leaky roofs, crumbling ceilings, cracked foundations, rotting walls and faulty plumbing.

"Roof problems are the worst," says Husson. "They're really insidious. They can damage ceiling tiles, carpet, books, furniture, computers."

At the same time, student enrollment had climbed by 20,000 in the last dozen years, to 139,000. Nearly every school needed more classrooms, and the district was expecting another 10,000 students in the coming decade.

"We need to get some of the elementary schools down to 500 to 700 students instead of 1,500," says Husson. "We have about 3,000 portables. At some schools, portables are 50 percent of capacity."The district even has two schools that are made up totally of modular units. Those "temporary" schools are more than 20 years old.

The facts were clear, but the district had to make a case for its plan, especially since it needed approval from two-thirds of the voters.

"We had 31/2 years of site-by-site analysis and a community-by-community needs assessment," says Husson.

The end product was Proposition MM-a $1.5 billion proposal placed on the November 1998 ballot. It contained a list of projects that would let the school system climb out of the deferred maintenance hole it had dug for itself. If voters approved, Proposition MM would allow San Diego to preserve existing buildings before deteriorating conditions forced closings, and provide additional classrooms to meet anticipated enrollment growth (See related sidebar on p.26).

A key element of the plan was the district's promise to appoint a citizens' oversight committee to make sure the bond money is going where it is supposed to go. The proposal garnered more than 78 percent of the vote.

In addition to the bond proceeds, San Diego's efforts to improve facilities will benefit from some of the $9.2 billion in state funding for capital projects that California voters approved in November. Husson says he expects San Diego will get $300 million to $400 million of those funds. The district will probably earmark that money for furniture and equipment-the law prohibits it from using its own bond funds for those items.

The repairs and renovations are to be completed within five years. New school construction will take place as needed, but probably within 10 years. The district and oversight committee are working to decide which projects the district will tackle first.

"We hope to hit the ground running this summer," says Husson.

Caught in the middle The needs that accumulated over the years in San Diego became impossible to overlook, but in other districts, the solutions are not as clear-cut.

In Wayland, Mass., 15 miles west of Boston, enrollment was "creeping up," and the 2,700-student school district was running out of space in its three elementary schools. Enrollment growth is expected to continue for the next decade, and the district has plans to enlarge and renovate its middle school. But current demographic projections couldn't justify building a fourth elementary school.

"We were in-between," says Wayland Superintendent Gary Burton. "We needed more space in our elementary schools, but not enough to build a new elementary. An elementary school would have about 20 rooms. We needed eight."

Over the last three years, the district considered numerous options: building an early-childhood center and moving kindergartens out of the elementary buildings, reconfiguring grade levels at its buildings, exploring year-round schools, or renting portable classrooms.

Ultimately, school officials decided to construct permanent modular additions to all three elementary buildings. The first two modular classrooms were built last summer. Wayland went with modulars rather than more traditional additions for several reasons. Among them: "Speed, ease, quality of workmanship and cost," says Burton.

A new elementary would have cost as much as $15 million, Burton estimates. The modulars are being built for $100,000 a classroom. Aesthetics were an important issue for Wayland.

"I said, 'I don't want ones that look like toaster ovens,'" says Burton. "I wanted them connected fully to the schools. There's nothing portable about these. They will never move. They're likely to outlast the buildings they're attached to."

The district strived to match the brick and color of the modulars to the original buildings. It insisted on higher quality specifications than the manufacturer called for.

"People stand right next to them and say, 'Where are your modulars?' " says Burton. "I don't want to be characterized as a poster child for modular classrooms, but to fill an immediate need on a selective basis, it is a good choice."

Starting at the top Even districts not struggling with space needs have a difficult job keeping the buildings they have in good condition.

In Ohio, the General Assembly has enacted legislation to provide districts with matching funds to refurbish and upgrade school buildings. For Columbus Public Schools, where the average age of its 140 schools is more than 50 years old, that means $41 million is available to refurbish and upgrade facilities. About $17 million of that is earmarked for roof repairs.

"We start on top with the roofs," says Chuck Hollar, the district's administrator in charge of capital improvement. "Then we go to the vertical surfaces-windows and doors. Then we'll look at foundations and mechanical and electrical fix-ups, and plaster and painting."

The current renovation plan, which will be completed in about 11/2 years, follows a $92 million modernization program from 1990 to 1992, and an $8.5 million bond issue in 1994 to pay for improvements related to energy conservation in 108 buildings.

"Refurbishing is driven by the folks in the buildings who are concerned about conditions," says Hollar. "Through our maintenance department we had these issues more defined. The maintenance people know how far they can go with things before repairs are needed."

The district has about 63,000 students and has had some growth, says Hollar, but has not built new schools in more than 20 years. At the same time, Columbus has had to look at the possibility of closing underutilized buildings, but has not done so yet.

With 630 buildings, many in appalling condition and some more than a century old, the Chicago Public School system is faced with a daunting-and costly-task: make the aging and dilapidated buildings suitable for education in the 21st century.

To do so, the nation's third largest school district, under the direct control of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, has embarked on what it says is one of the most ambitious construction projects in the nation. Since 1996, the district has budgeted $2 billion for massive repairs, renovations and new construction, and the district's chief executive officer, Paul Vallas, has proposed seeking funding for another $1 billion in improvements.

The district's first State of the Buildings report, issued earlier this year, spells out the deteriorating conditions found when Daley and his reformers took over the system in 1995. The report also details the multi-billion-dollar plans that have been put in place to correct or eliminate problems.

"This $2 billion effort is only the beginning of what it will take to make all [district] school buildings sound learning institutions for our children," the report says.

How bad was it? Before the reform efforts began, overall conditions were deplorable. Among the problems:

-Leaky roofs and drafty windows often forced many of the district's 430,000 students to wear coats, hats and gloves in their classrooms.

-Crowded schools meant some classes were held in hallways, under stairwells or wherever free space could be found.

-Fifty-seven percent of the district's facilities were more than 50 years old.

-About 30 percent of all schools were overcrowded-in 1997 and 1998 officials identified a shortage of 32,409 elementary-classroom seats.

-Hundreds of schools needed new roofs, windows and masonry work.

-Poor building management resulted in 114 cases pending in 1995 in Housing Court for building code violations.

-Nearly 100 boilers needed to be replaced immediately.

-Some schools had not been painted in 30 years.

What's been done The district's capital-improvements program was launched in 1996 with three major objectives:

-Reducing overcrowding through new construction.

-Achieving a minimum standard of physical condition for each school.

-Improving learning through educational enhancements.

Since then the district has these projects either underway or completed:

-10 new schools.

-23 additions.

-27 annexes.

-1,080 renovation projects.

-188 playlots.

-7 athletic field and stadium renovations.

-53 campus parks.

By August 1999, more than 650 new classrooms will have been completed. Officials are using design prototypes for new schools and additions to save money and accelerate construction.

New roofs were installed at 309 buildings; new windows at 308 buildings. Masonry work was completed at 292 buildings, and 99 boilers have been replaced. Ten gymnasium renovations have been finished or are underway. Eight schools received new student lockers. Fifty-five buildings were renovated to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Repairs and renovations are taking place at a record pace," says the report.

As a result of these efforts, pending code-violation cases in Housing Court had dropped from 114 in 1995 to two this year.

Looking to the future To monitor its space needs more precisely, the district has begun detailed demographic analyses to predict more accurately where enrollment shifts are occurring in the city. Officials also have, for the first time in years, established a preventive-maintenance program to ensure that the condition of district facilities does not slide back into neglect and disrepair. The district plans to put all schools on a 12-year painting cycle and replace boilers more than 30 years old. To cut costs, the school system has partially privatized district custodial services.

The list of improvements is impressive, but district officials caution that billions more will have to be spent before every school meets acceptable standards.

"There are still critical areas that must be addressed," says the report. "Funding sources must be identified to fulfill these needs. In addition, new issues and needs evolve almost on a daily basis."

Among the needs already identified are at least:

-39 new schools.

-40 additions.

-58 high-school lab upgrades.

-40 high-school locker upgrades.

-200 window projects.

-300 boiler replacements.

-100 gymnasium renovations.

Voters in San Diego approved a $1.5 billion bond issue in November to pay for a massive construction program for the school district's 167 schools. Here's how most of the funds will be allocated:

-$481 million to build 13 elementary schools and a new high school.

-$317 million for major repairs, such as roofs, plumbing and playground equipment, and to comply with building codes.

-$209 million to improve technology at all elementary and high schools.

-$133 million to build or upgrade science classrooms at middle and high schools.

-$84 million to build or expand libraries at 104 schools.

-$70 million for future repair and replacement.

-$47 million to replace portable classrooms at 20 schools with permanent buildings.

-$35 million to add facilities for counseling, parental involvement, conferences and special education.

-$27 million to replace two temporary elementary schools that are more than 20 years old.

-$18 million to add on to a high school and three middle schools.

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