Oct. 1, 2001
Following court mandates and renewed support in the billions of dollars, a new era in state and local government cooperation is converting once-ailing facilities into inspirational learning environments.

Month after month, Larry Likes would watch with concern as the roofs of new housing began to fill the skyline of Higley, Ariz., near Phoenix.

Realizing that many of those new houses would attract families with children, Likes wondered where he would find the classroom space. As superintendent of the school district in Higley, he knew that Higley Elementary, the district's only school, was too old and small to handle the growth.

Likes also knew that with an available bonding capacity of about $2.2 million, the district couldn't afford to build a new facility.

“We couldn't have built an outhouse,” says Likes. “We had no assessed valuation to do anything.”

That was before lawmakers created the Arizona School Facilities Board. In the last two years it has allocated more than $2 billion for school construction, renovation and improvements — including about $55 million for the Higley Unified School District. The district has expanded its existing elementary building, built two more K-8 schools and a high school.

“There's no way we could have done any of this without that money,” says Likes.

Higley is one of many districts across the nation that have benefited from renewed efforts at the state level to help pay for school construction. In some cases, the funding came grudgingly from a legislature under the weight of a judicial order; in other cases, states have acted to head off a court ruling. And some states have stepped in after recognizing without judicial intervention how vast the need was and how difficult it was for some struggling districts to carry the burden on their own.

“We're getting to do all the stuff that the well-endowed districts have been doing all along,” says Richard Wells, executive director of business and operations for School District No. 189 in East St. Louis, Ill.

Building a case

Local school districts traditionally have received some of their operating funds from state governments, but for construction projects, local districts typically have had to shoulder the cost themselves. But as the deteriorating state of the nation's schools has gained more attention, many state governments — and the federal government — have stepped forward to help local communities build and repair schools.

Several factors account for this trend:

  • Because of a stronger economy in the 1990s, schools in general have been more successful in winning voter support for construction projects. The most recent American School & University Official Education Construction Report found that in 2000, elementary and secondary schools spent more than $21.5 billion on construction. That is more than double what was spent 10, and even five, years earlier.

  • With greater attention on education, especially from politicians at the national level, schools have been able to generate more public support for construction.

  • Increasing student enrollment has made it difficult to ignore the need for more space. Since 1985, nationwide enrollment has been climbing. In 1999, 52.8 million children attended elementary and secondary schools in the United States; by 2005, the number is expected to peak at about 53.4 million.

  • School facilities continue to age and deteriorate. A U.S. Department of Education report, “Condition of America's Public School Facilities: 1999,” found that three-quarters of schools need to spend money on repairs, renovations and modernizations. An often-cited report by the General Accounting Office in 1995 said it would take $112 billion to pay for needed school repairs. In 2000, the National Education Association put the number at $322 billion.

  • Among educators and others, there has been growing support for the view that the condition of school facilities and the number of students in a classroom affect student performance and attitudes.

  • Many school patrons and districts that believe their state's methods of paying for school construction are unfair have challenged those systems in court — and in some cases have won.

Most states now have some form of financial aid for school construction. Some are flat grants awarded to districts; some offer need-based grants; and some disburse money based on equalized funding formulas that give the most money to the poorest districts.

Transforming spaces

Like many districts in California, the Pomona Unified School District was growing and didn't have enough classroom space. But through a combination of state funds and money from local bond issues, the district has been able to create eye-catching schools in what had been considered undesirable locations.

Pueblo Elementary School, built in a former retail store, and Diamond Ranch High School, built on a steeply sloped site that had been considered impractical for development, both received about half of their funding from the state, says Edward Walsh, assistant superintendent of business services.

“It's easy to forget what they were before, when you look at them now,” says Walsh. “The transformation has been incredible. One was a site that nobody thought you could build on, and the other was a shopping area that people were afraid to go to after dark.”

Funding from a $9.2 billion statewide bond issue in 1998 helped Pomona buy part of the former shopping mall site and convert it to an educational facility, says Walsh. The district's share of the costs was included in a $50 million bond that voters approved in 1998. The money for Diamond Ranch, approved before the 1998 bond issue was in place, came from a lease-purchase state funding mechanism. The school had been in the works for many years. The district's costs were covered in a $62.5 million bond that voters approved in 1991. It also received $5 million from the city of Industry to help pay for grading the steep site.

The 72-acre site for the high school was sold to the district for $1 because it was considered too difficult to build there. “No one wanted it,” says Walsh. “We held an architectural competition to see what we could do with that.”

Students attended classes in portable classrooms for several years while the construction went on around them. Finally, in September 2000, more than 1,700 students began classes in the completed facility.

“These schools are situationally unique,” says Walsh. “People there feel they are in really exceptional environments.”

Help for Higley

The Higley Unified School District, about 30 miles southeast of Phoenix, is going down the path many districts have walked. Once a district that served primarily an agricultural area, Higley is evolving into a suburb. As the tentacles of the Phoenix metropolitan area reach farther into the outlying area, residential subdivisions are supplanting the acres of Higley farmland.

But the residential growth was not accompanied by commercial development, so the student population was growing faster than the district's tax base. Under the traditional way of paying for school construction — a local bond issue — Higley would have had to raise taxes impossibly high to build more facilities, and even then it couldn't have done so because it did not have enough debt capacity.

Other districts filed a lawsuit to challenge Arizona's school construction funding, but Higley couldn't take part. “We were so poor, we couldn't afford the legal fees,” says Likes.

But the district, like many others in Arizona, ultimately benefited from the case. Forced by the Arizona Supreme Court, the state established the Arizona School Facilities Board. Once districts establish a need for school construction or renovation, the facilities board pays virtually the entire cost of a project.

In Higley, that meant:

  • A $25 million, 1,700-student high school that opened earlier this year. Before the school was built, children in Higley had to attend high schools in neighboring districts, and Higley paid tuition to those districts. Now students from outside Higley are clamoring to transfer to the new school.

  • A $7 million, 1,025-student elementary school, Coronado, that opened in 2000 for grades K-8.

  • An $8.5 million, 1,200-student elementary school, San Tan, that opened in 2001 for grades K-8.

  • A $3.5 million expansion that increased the capacity of Higley Elementary from 340 to 925. It also houses grades K-8.

“The old elementary had no gymnasium, the cafeteria was the size of a classroom — the original building was built in 1915,” says Likes.

Now the schools have multipurpose rooms, rooms for band and choral music, and one computer for every four students.

“Once we proved that we had the need, the state came through with the money,” says Likes.

Aid for the needy

The plight of the Wellsville (Ohio) Local District was not uncommon among the nation's schools. A small system in a small town with not many resources, Wellsville was rated the 12th poorest district in the state, says Superintendent Jim Brown. The district made do with an antiquated building for its high school.

“It was built in 1925,” says Brown. “We kept it up well, and we renovated what we could, but technologically we were not able to keep up. We had just one electrical outlet per classroom. We got along. We knew what our shortcomings were.”

When the state formed the Ohio School Facilities Commission in 1997 to address the state's facility needs, Wellsville was among the first to seek funding. In 1997, district voters passed a bond issue to raise $1.7 million. That made the district eligible for $11.2 million in state funding.

Wellsville built a new 450-student high school that opened in April 2001. The old high school was renovated and converted to a middle school for grades K-8.

“Now we have two wonderful facilities,” says Brown. “The technology is what jumps out at you. And we have larger spaces, a new HVAC system, sound stages, extra laboratories.”

Once in the new facilities, the morale of students and staff soared. “This has been a godsend for the students and the people of Wellsville,” says Brown. “The ownership that the high school staff has in this nice, bright, airy facility is obvious. You could see the spirits uplifted in the staff. The pride was just unbelievable.”

Other districts in Ohio have benefited even more from the facilities commission. In the Lorain (Ohio) City School District, the state is paying $175 million of a $216 million project. In the Springfield City District, the state is paying for $135 million of a $165 million project. Since 1997, the commission has allocated more than $3 billion for local school construction.

In Illinois, the state established a similar funding program in 1997 for school construction. As of earlier this year, it had awarded more than $2.1 billion to local districts. One of the major beneficiaries of the funding is School District No. 189 in East St. Louis, Ill. Since 1998, it has received $86.3 million from the Illinois First program.

Combined with local funds, the state money will allow East St. Louis to build five elementary schools, three middle schools, an early-childhood education center and an addition to the district's high school.

The new facilities are desperately needed, says Wells. Based on a state formula that factors in age and the state of deterioration, 12 of the 26 schools in East St. Louis are functionally more than 100 years old.

“The district did not do much preventive maintenance for a long time,” says Wells. “The buildings were deteriorating rather rapidly.”

And as one of the most economically downtrodden areas in the nation, East St. Louis didn't have the resources to do much about it. The district has one of the highest tax rates in Illinois.

Even so, Wells says he was leery of the program when it was first announced.

“It was very paper-intensive,” he says. “We had to put a lot of work into it. In the succeeding years, we could just insert a lot of the paperwork we had already done, so it was much easier.”

East St. Louis received $8 million in 1998 and $16 million in 1999. Based on the success of those requests, Wells decided to make a more comprehensive proposal. In 2000, the state responded with a $57 million grant. In 2001, the district received another $4 million. East St. Louis will use alternative revenue bonds, some of its traditional state aid and budget reserves to come up with its local funding share.

The projects will create $124 million in new facilities. Even before the buildings are ready, they have transformed attitudes in the district.

“The whole community is very excited,” says Wells. “So is the staff. When the high-school addition is ready to open, they say they'll stay up all night to move stuff over and get kids in there right away.”

Unmet demand

The districts that have benefited from state construction funding are grateful for the improvements that the money has brought. But the sobering reality is that even in states that have allocated huge amounts to the issue, that effort is only a small step in fixing the problem.

In California, it soon became clear that 1998's $9.2 billion bond issue to pay for new and upgraded schools couldn't begin to address the widespread needs of the nation's largest state.

In September, California lawmakers were pushing a plan for $22 billion more in school construction bonds. Some education supporters were saying that did not go far enough — they wanted a package of as much as $30 billion.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

SIDEBAR: New Jersey lawsuits result in billions for school construction

Following a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that the state must upgrade facilities in 30 poor, urban school districts, the state established a school construction initiative in 2000. It anticipates that $12 billion will be spent over 10 years on school construction — $8.6 billion in state bonds and the rest from local school districts.

The 30 districts identified by the court as “special needs” districts — also known as Abbott districts — will receive 100 percent state funding for their new facilities. According to the New Jersey Department of Education, it has approved construction plans for those districts that total $7.3 billion. Among the major funding recipients:

  • Newark, $1.57 billion. Eight new elementary schools on new sites; 12 new elementary schools on existing or expanded sites; alterations or additions to six elementary schools; three new elementary/middle schools on new sites; 12 new elementary/middle schools on existing or expanded sites; alterations or additions to eight elementary/middle schools; four new middle schools on new sites; one new middle school on an existing site; alterations or additions to four middle schools; alterations and additions to two special-education schools; three new high schools on three new sites; and renovations or additions to nine high schools.

  • Jersey City, $966 million. Construction of 15 new early-childhood centers; replacement of six elementary schools; construction of two new elementary schools; additions and renovations to 15 elementary schools; renovations to two elementary schools; additions and renovations to two elementary/middle schools; renovations to a special-education elementary/middle school; renovations to the magnet middle school; construction of six new middle schools; additions and renovations to three existing middle schools; construction of a new high school; additions and renovations to three high schools; and conversion of a facility to an alternative high school.

  • Paterson, $734 million. Construction of 10 new K-8 schools, two new pre-kindergarten schools and a new high school; conversion of one elementary school into a high-school academy; and renovations to 21 school facilities.

  • Elizabeth, $523 million. Construction of three new preschools on new sites, additions to eight elementary schools, renovations to seven elementary schools, conversion of three middle schools to schools serving preschool through eighth grade, construction of 15 new elementary/middle schools at new sites, replacement of one existing elementary/middle school, conversion of three existing middle schools to elementary/middle schools, construction of two new high schools on new sites and replacement of one high school.

SIDEBAR: A state pitches in

Statistics from the Ohio School Facilities Commission show the dramatic increase in school construction funding in recent years. Since 1997, when the commission was created, the amount the state has allocated is six times as much as it had spent in the previous 40 years.

  • 1957-1992: $174 million
  • 1992-1997: $334 million
  • 1997-present: $3 billion

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