Restoring our nation's schools to good condition would cost an estimated $127 billion, according to a recent study. Arizona is one of the states that has been aggressive in devoting substantial amounts of money to pay for needed upgrades. In the last two years, the state has allocated more than $1 billion for new school construction and more than $1.1 billion for renovations and improvements.
The changes in Arizona were triggered by a lawsuit that challenged the way the state funded capital projects for its 228 school districts. Court rulings forced the legislature to enact an education-construction program in 1998. It established statewide facility guidelines and required Arizona to pay all construction costs for new school facilities and for renovations to bring facilities up to the new standards.
Overseeing the program is the Arizona School Facilities Board. It is a citizen board appointed by the governor that represents a cross-section of education and the private sector. The board's executive director is appointed by the governor and serves on the governor's cabinet. The board has the authority to distribute, without legislative approval, the funds required to construct new schools, renovate existing schools and provide annual building renewal.
The School Facilities Board has adopted rules to establish minimum school facility guidelines, assess school buildings against these guidelines, and provide money to bring the buildings up to the guidelines. The building “adequacy guidelines” serve as the minimum standards for existing and new school facilities in Arizona. These guidelines contain everything from square-footage formulas to lighting levels. (They can be found on the facilities board's website at www.sfb.state.az.us.)
Three funding sources are available for improving school conditions and meeting the building adequacy guidelines:
The deficiencies correction fund, for identifying and correcting deficiencies in existing school facilities (such as square-footage deficiency or a quality deficiency).
The building renewal fund, for major renovations and repairs of a building, upgrades to building systems (such as heating, cooling or plumbing) and infrastructure costs.
The new school facilities fund, for the construction of new schools.
Currently, 5,963 “hard construction” deficiency projects have been identified at an estimated cost of more than $740 million; this includes 1,095 HVAC projects, 904 roofs, 302 projects to increase the size of schools (including replacement schools), 233 fire-alarm systems, 78 kitchen installations, and 191 intercom and telephone systems.
To oversee the construction projects, the School Facilities Board has contracted with nine project-management firms. Each bid package of approximately $30 million is assigned a project manager, who coordinates all the work and people involved in the various projects across multiple school districts. The board bids and manages all of these projects to obtain the best prices, and to be sure the work is done on time and within budget.
To ensure that students have regular access to computers, the School Facilities Board has established a computer-to-student ratio of 1 to 8. To meet that standard, the state has purchased more than 36,000 computers. Through a partnership with a major technology company, every classroom will have enough computer drops so that every computer is Internet-connected.
This $100 million contract also provides cache engines in every school and content managers for every district in addition to three years of on-site maintenance, and remote monitoring of the network. An application service provider (ASP) offers content, assessment, teacher resources, and productivity software to students and teachers. Students and teachers will be able to connect to the ASP from home or school. Each teacher will be able to have his or her own website as well.
To maintain and extend the life of schools, the legislature has approved a separate building renewal fund, in addition to the state's annual capital aid. To date, more than $280 million has been distributed for building renewal.
Arizona is expanding rapidly, and that means increased enrollment. By partnering with housing developers, the School Facilities Board has acquired more than $60 million in donated land for 49 school sites. The developers receive a 30 percent state tax credit for their donations.
Geiger is an education consultant and executive director of the Arizona School Facilities Board. He can be reached at [email protected].