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Bursting Through

In 1971, Richard Nixon was president, gasoline cost 36 cents a gallon and school officials in Tecumseh, Mich., first approached the community about building a new high school.

Voters said no to a bond issue that year, and that remained their answer as a generation of students passed through school doors.

"We've been trying every three to five years since then," says Thomas Emery, executive director of operations for the district.

Once, in 1982, an anonymous donor even promised to pony up half the cost of a new school if voters covered the rest of the bill. Still, the community said no thanks.

Finally, in September 1998, voters in the 3,200-student district southeast of Ann Arbor approved their first bond issue in 30 years--a $33 million proposal to build a new high school.

"It took 27 years to get anything passed," says Emery.

Today, in the midst of a school construction boom, Tecumseh and thousands of districts nationwide aren't hesitating to spend money for new and improved space. As schools ready themselves to enter the 21st century, districts across the country have earmarked billions of dollars to handle an unprecedented number of students. They're building classrooms at a furious pace and sprucing up outdated buildings that have long been neglected.

A universal problem

The need for more and improved space affects just about every kind of school system--small or large; urban, suburban or rural. The robust economy has made it easier for districts to persuade voters and legislators to provide money for more classrooms, and federal initiatives for more school construction funding have put the issue in the national spotlight.

The result: School districts spent more than $17 billion in 1998 on new buildings, additions and improvements. And from now until 2001, they estimate they will spend an additional $46 billion on construction.

Two trends occurring simultaneously have propelled the wave of building. Districts need more space to accommodate an all-time-high number of students attending K-12 schools, and many schools built in the 1950s and 1960s during the last peak of student population need to be replaced or drastically upgraded.

The baby boom that followed World War II swelled school attendance figures through the 1960s, but in the 1970s, enrollment began a 13-year decline. From a peak of 46 million in 1971, public school enrollment plummeted to 39.2 million in 1984.

The numbers began to creep upward in 1985 as baby boomers' children reached school age. By fall 1998, the U.S. Department of Education estimated that public-school enrollment had reached 46.8 million students, surpassing the previous 1971 peak of a little more than 46 million. The department expects enrollment numbers to continue to climb until 2006, when a projected 48.4 million will be attending public schools.

Taking initiative

When those students arrive at the schoolhouse door, districts need to have an adequate place for them. That means not only more classrooms, but also classrooms that are in good condition and not overcrowded.

For the third year in a row, President Clinton has proposed in his budget a tax incentive that would provide nearly $25 billion in interest-free bonds to build or modernize up to 6,000 school buildings throughout the nation. Republican lawmakers also have a school-construction-funding initiative on the table. While school districts would welcome the federal help, they aren't waiting on Washington before they tackle their needs.

In the Houston Independent School District, officials are gearing up for $678 million of improvements that voters authorized last year. The bond issue will allow the district to build seven elementary schools and three middle schools. About $500 million will be spent for repairing and modernizing 15 high schools, 19 middle schools, 36 elementary schools, and 20 other district facilities.

Not included in the bond money are two high schools now under construction. The district is paying for those with a combination of tax-increment financing and lease-purchase arrangements.

The bond issue projects represent just the most critical needs in Houston. The district brought in an outside consultant who determined the school system needed $1.2 billion in repairs.

The last bond issue approved in Houston was a $371 million plan in 1989. Since then, the school system-with 211,000 students, the biggest in Texas and the seventh largest in the United States-has continued to grow. It has added 20,000 students in the last nine years.

"There was tremendous overcrowding that's been there for several years," says Julian Garcia, the district's general manager of construction services. He estimated that the district is using about 2,100 portable classrooms and leases temporary space in several buildings.

The average age of Houston's 270 schools is 43 years old; 50 of them are more than 50 years old. In reviewing all the district's buildings, consultants found numerous problems with heating, air conditioning, plumbing, leaky roofs and schools that no longer complied with fire codes or federal regulations.

Many of the problems were there in 1996 when the district sought a $390 million bond issue, but voters were not convinced and rejected the plan. Having the assessment of building needs come from an outside consultant helped persuade the community that the problems were widespread and critical.

"That lent credibility to the fact that the schools were in dire need," says Garcia. "Voters had more confidence in the district."

The $678 million is merely phase one of Houston's improvements. Many problems included on the consultant's $1.2 billion list have not been addressed, and needs grow as each day passes. Garcia says there will be a phase two, but district officials have not yet decided when.

"We are going to keep chipping away at it until we get there," says Garcia.

Size doesn't matter

In Auburn, Ala., even though total available construction dollars and enrollment size pale in comparison to Houston, the 4,300-student district is in the midst of addressing its space problems, as well. This school year, Auburn City Schools has opened two elementary buildings and is adding 12 rooms to its middle school.

"We've had pretty steady enrollment increases over the years," says Jimmy DeVenny, assistant superintendent of administration and operations.

DeVenny says many families have moved into the district for the school system and commute the 50 miles to Montgomery, Ala., or the 35 miles to Columbus, Ga. Over the years, Auburn City has addressed its space needs by expanding its buildings. Since 1983, the district has added on to at least one school each year. But that's an option that can be used only so many times.

"We added on and added on until we were added out," says DeVenny.

In 1992, Auburn City opened its first new building in 30 years, a district-wide kindergarten building. Since then, voters approved an $11 million bond issue, which enabled the district to expand the kindergarten building and build two schools for grades 1-5.

When one of the elementary schools was not ready to open in the fall, Auburn City was forced until Christmas to double up classrooms, with two teachers in each room. The district paired experienced teachers with novice staff members to create a mentoring relationship.

"There was some benefit gained from that," says DeVenny. "But when those teachers moved into their own classrooms, they felt like they had moved into a castle."

Like Auburn City, the Tecumseh, Mich., School District is a small district working to keep up with enrollment growth and provide modern facilities for its students.

Emery, the district's executive director of operations, says that the district is seeing more residential construction as people who work 40 minutes away in Ann Arbor move to Tecumseh.

"Housing is 25 percent cheaper, property taxes are about half," he says. "They like the small-town atmosphere."

The new residents have a mindset about education different from the attitude that prevailed when voters routinely rejected bond issues.

"This had always been a blue-collar town," says Emery. "It's been slowly evolving into more of a suburban area. People have different expectations for the school system."

That evolution led to success at the ballot box in November, as Tecumseh voters finally agreed to pay for a $33 million bond issue to build a new high school. When the building opens in 2001, the old high school will become a middle school, and the district will be able to vacate the 80-year-old building that houses the current middle school.

"It was built in 1919 as a K-12 site with 625-square-foot rooms," says Emery. "That might have been big enough for the 1920s with 22 kids all sitting in rows. In the 1990s, with bigger kids, and computers in the classroom, that space isn't enough."

The current high school also needs work to become an effective middle school site.

"The middle school will be an improvement from where it has been, but it's really eight different construction projects from 1949 to 1988," says Emery. "There are a lot of deficiencies."

Working under difficult conditions

Seminole County Schools in central Florida have had to cope with years of steady growth without the aid of bond issues.

"This is a very conservative county," says Dianne Kramer, executive director of facilities for the district. "We haven't asked for a bond issue since the late '80s."

In the meantime, the student population keeps climbing. About 57,000 attend 32 elementary, 10 middle and 7 high schools.

"We're adding about 1,500 students a year," says Kramer. "Some years it's as low as 500; it's been as high as 2,000. For 20 years we've been having this growth."

The district receives impact fees from new development, and the healthy economy has provided money to add some classroom space. Lease-purchase agreements provide another avenue for funding expansion.

Kramer says that right now, Seminole County is building an elementary school, a middle school, and a K-1 addition to an elementary school, as well as a "total rebuild" of a high school that will boost its capacity from 2,500 to 3,000. That's a lot, but it is not enough.

"We're trying to keep up, but we don't," says Kramer. "We are 2,000 student stations short at the elementary level. When you spread that over 32 schools, it doesn't sound as bad, but it's still a problem."

So the district relies on portables ("We have some at nearly every site," says Kramer) and has redrawn attendance boundaries to help alleviate crowding.

Several years ago, Seminole County briefly experimented with year-round schooling, which many districts view as an alternative to building more classrooms. Vociferous parent complaints persuaded the district to abandon the extended calendar.

"Teachers hated it; families hated it," says Kramer.

As it tries to find space for more students, Seminole County also works to stay on top of existing building needs.

"We try to balance the need for new facilities with the need to keep older facilities maintained," says Kramer. "The state would like us to concentrate on new facilities, but your buildings will suffer if you don't protect your investment. It could also lead to unequal levels of education."

That's also an issue that school officials are dealing with in Hamilton County, Tenn. Two years ago, the Chattanooga city school system merged with the surrounding Hamilton County district. It combined a district facing growth from suburban development on one end with one that was saddled with aging and often crumbling facilities.

"There was a different mindset between the two districts," says Gary Waters, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services. "The county was fairly aggressive in building new schools, but the city had built maybe one school in 15 years."

The new district has 44,000 students in 81 schools. But the average age of those schools is 41 years, and many have not weathered the years well.

"The needs are spread across the district," says Waters. "People are still moving to the suburbs and the outlying area, so we need new construction in those areas. We're also making more of an effort to do substantial building downtown in the urban area."

Attendance-boundary changes have eased crowding in some schools. But the district also is adding new space to cope with growth and address equity concerns.

An aggressive plan Hamilton County is building six elementary schools and one middle school to replace antiquated facilities. In March, a facilities task force conducted a first-ever district-wide assessment of school buildings and recommended a far-ranging building and renovation plan.

It called for construction over 10 years of 14 schools-seven of which would replace existing schools. Classrooms would be added at 12 other buildings. In addition, the district should set up a capital improvement fund of $7.5 million a year to begin addressing about $92 million worth of repairs to outmoded and inadequate facilities and equipment. The task force proposals must go before the Hamilton County Commission for approval.

"We're being as aggressive as our financial ability allows," says Waters.

In the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County District, N.C., the economy has been holding strong despite concerns about the long-term health of the tobacco industry. The school system has added about 1,000 students in each of the last three years and now has 43,000 students in 61 schools. That means the district has to rely on 300 modular classrooms to provide space while awaiting construction of new classrooms.

Voters approved a $94 million bond issue in 1995. That provided the money to build four middle schools, three elementary schools, and modernize one existing elementary school. When those buildings are in place, the district will need only about 150 modulars. The district also is redrawing attendance boundaries to address crowding at some schools.

Besides adding space, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County is using some of its bond proceeds and funds from the state to make a dent in its maintenance backlog-roof and boiler replacements, and heating and air-conditioning repairs.

"Because the practice of deferred maintenance has gone on for so long, you can get yourself in serious trouble," says Reginald Teague, assistant superintendent for operations for the district. "We've got to take care of what we've got."

The district also has conducted an assessment of its future needs, which Teague says amount to some $200 million over the next 10 years.

According to Teague, the public would generally do what it takes to keep schools healthy if educators laid out their case more effectively.

"People in public education need to do a better job of telling [the public] what the need is," says Teague.

SIDEBAR: Old school reclaimed to cope with growth

Situated north of Chicago in the affluent lakefront suburb of Winnetka, New Trier High School has long been considered one of the premier schools in the nation.

But could it maintain that status if its enrollment, now at 3,300 students, bulged to more than 4,100 by 2010, as projections show? And could it still offer the depth and breadth of programs if its resources were divided between two schools?

That's the dilemma that faced the school as it confronted its enrollment growth. Its solution, at least for the short term, is to re-open the former New Trier West High School building in Northfield, Ill., and use it as a freshman-only campus.

Last fall, voters approved an $11 million bond issue that will help pay for renovations at the West campus. Don Goers, New Trier's assistant superintendent for business, says the renovated building would accommodate 1,000 to 1,100 freshmen. He says the district would probably open the freshman site in 2002 or 2003, but could accelerate the timetable if tenants vacate the old school sooner.

Difficult decisions The district opened New Trier West in 1965 during the first baby boom. Declining enrollment led the district in the early 1980s to convert it to a freshman-only campus. It closed altogether in 1985, and since then New Trier has been leasing it to several businesses.

"The board looked at selling it a few years ago, but decided not to," says Goers. "We kept it as kind of an insurance policy."

That decision turned out to be wise now that a new generation of children has created a "baby-boom echo" of burgeoning enrollment.

Establishing a freshman campus was a compromise between those who wanted the West campus revived as a four-year school and those who wanted the Winnetka site enlarged to accommodate more than 4,000 students.

The compromise has delayed a decision on a long-term space solution. One option being considered is a voluntary attendance plan for the West campus.

"One of the proposals on the table is for a big school/little school division," says Goers. "Somewhere between 800 and 1,200 students would attend the Northfield school and the rest would stay in Winnetka."

The voluntary attendance plan would spare New Trier from having to draw a boundary line splitting the district. But it has many potential problems. Would enough students volunteer to attend West to make the plan feasible or would they opt for the more familiar and prestigious Winnetka campus? If too many students applied to attend West, would the district turn them down? Could students who choose West return to the east campus in Winnetka if they don't like West? Could the district equitably distribute resources and offer programs when one school would be three times larger than the other?

A task force has recommended further study of the big school/little school option, but school officials say they won't decide on long-term solutions until they have more up-to-date demographic projections.

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