The collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008 hit education institutions hard, and schools and universities still are feeling the ripples of the damage several years later: reduced tax revenue, slashed state aid, eliminated programs, laid-off teachers, deferred maintenance.
The financial setbacks also abruptly halted the momentum institutions had been experiencing for school facility improvements. The most recent figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau show that after nearly 20 years of mostly steady growth in spending on capital projects, spending by school districts dropped a precipitous 12.4 percent in 2009-10.
But even with funding becoming harder to secure, districts spent more than $59 billion that year on upgrading school facilities. That sum of cash can pay for a lot of classrooms. Despite the economic cloud still lingering in many communities, lots of school systems, especially those still growing rapidly, have persuaded their constituents to authorize the funds to build needed facilities.
“The funding coming from the state was obviously so poor,” says Cynthia Reed-Porter, a communications supervisor in the San Diego Unified District, which passed bond proposals of more than $2 billion in 2008 and 2012. “People could see that there wasn’t any other funding available.”
Ballot box success
For school districts, getting voters to approve a ballot question typically is the most likely way to secure funding for facility improvements. The success of a bond proposal depends on numerous factors—local economic conditions, the threshold of votes needed for approval, a district’s track record in delivering projects promised in previous requests, and the skill of bond proponents in communicating a school system’s facility needs.
In the last few years, some districts have postponed or shied away from asking voters for construction funding. But in recent months, several school systems have won approval of sizable bond requests. In November, voters in the Houston district authorized $1.9 billion in school bonds last year; the Miami district won approval of a $1.2 billion bond request. A $482 million bond package passed in the Portland (Ore.) district, and a $466 million program was approved by Denver district voters.
The largest school district bond request approved last fall by voters was the $2.8 billion package put forth by the San Diego district. The approval of Proposition Z came four years after district voters authorized Proposition S—a $2.1 billion bond program.
With more than 220 education facilities housing some 132,000 students, the San Diego district identified more than $7 billion in facility needs. With less than robust support available from the state, the district asked voters in 2008 to approve Proposition S, a $2.1 billion bond proposal.
The district plans to use the bond funds to carry out numerous facility repairs and build new classrooms, as well as outfit 7,000 classrooms with the new technology through its i21 Classroom initiative. The initiative calls for equipping district classrooms with an interactive whiteboard, an audiovisual cabinet, a teacher’s presentation station, a wireless voice amplification system, a document camera, a classroom DVD player, a teacher’s tablet computer and netbook or tablet computers for each student.
But Proposition S was approved with significant limitations. San Diego could issue bonds only as long as the district didn’t exceed its 2007-08 tax rate. The approval of the proposition coincided with the general collapse of economic conditions in the nation, so San Diego could not pursue the scope of the projects it had envisioned when it crafted its bond proposal.
So the district moved to Plan B, or Proposition Z. This time, the district was seeking authority to issue $2.8 billion in bonds, and proponents were upfront that the new bonds would raise taxes—up to $60 a year per $100,000 in assessed valuation. The proposal received less support than the request four years earlier (61.8 percent compared with 68.7 percent), but passed comfortably.
Here’s how San Diego has allocated most of the $2.8 billion:
•$574.6 million for repair and replacement of building systems at more than 220 schools and educational facilities.
•$561.6 million to upgrade neighborhood school campuses.
•$472.6 million to improve student health, safety and security.
•$355.1 million to enhance classroom and student technology.
•$350 million for charter school facilities (about 13,000 students in the district attend charter schools)
•$210 million to improve energy efficiency and sustainability in facilities.
•$208.9 million for improvements to meet accessibility requirements and comply with codes.
•$66.3 million to improve college, career and technical-education facilities.
Meanwhile, the district also is carrying out many Proposition S projects. Reed-Porter says San Diego has been built 17 career-technical education facilities, four classroom buildings, 11 synthetic turf fields and all-weather tracks, and several air-conditioning upgrades.
As part of the i21 Classroom initiative, the district has acquired 4,280 whiteboards, 4,769 tablet computers for teachers and nearly 100,000 devices (netbooks or tablets) for students.
Thirteen years ago, the Alpine (Utah) district had one school west of the Jordan River. Now there are 11, says Rhonda Bromley, administrator of public relations for the district. In those 13 years, Alpine, south of Salt Lake City and north of Provo, has gone from the fourth-largest district in the state, with a little more than 47,000 students, to the state’s largest, with 70,863 students.
The growth is expected to continue.
“There is plenty of room to grow,” says Bromley. “It’s not looking like it’s slowing down.”
A $200 million bond issue in 2001 enabled Alpine to build eight elementary schools and two middle schools, and renovate many existing campuses. In 2006, voters approved a $230 million bond package, which provided funds to build nine new schools: seven elementary, one middle and one high. Several existing schools received renovations or additions.
By 2011, district officials were faced with an unmistakable need for more classroom space; the district projects that by 2017, enrollment would climb to nearly 81,500. But the district also had to take into account the sluggish economy that could have made taxpayers reluctant to take on the added cost of more school facilities.
“It was a hard time to go for a bond,” says Bromley. “The board spent hundreds of hours talking it through with the community, getting feedback.”
By seeking opinions from community members, Alpine administrators adjusted the priority of some bond projects. The district became made aware of the public’s belief that a new high school was needed in Lehi, and that project became part of the 2011 bond program, Bromley says.
The district persuaded voters in November 2011 to back a $210 million bond for construction of that high school, which is projected to open in 2016, and several other facility projects. Bromley says the bond program included upgrades for many existing schools so that voters in those areas would not feel that only newly developed areas were benefiting from the bonds.
Later this year, three new schools paid for with bond funds will open—two elementary schools in Orem and a middle school in Eagle Mountain. Construction on two additional elementary schools is scheduled to begin this year.
Based on growth trends, the district may need to seek another bond election by 2016. “If the board decides on another bond issue, we will plan and communicate that well in advance,” says Bromley.
Decades of growth
The Katy (Texas) district is no stranger to school construction. From 1989 to 2009 the Houston-area system saw its enrollment more than triple as suburban residential development filled its borders. In those year, voters approved more than $1 billion in bonds to pay for the facilities needed to house the influx of students. The result? In those two decades, Katy opened 32 schools—three senior high, nine junior high and 20 elementary campuses. In that stretch, no more than two years passed without the district opening a new school campus.
The national economic downturn that culminated in 2008 slowed growth. From 2001-02 to 2007-08, Katy’s student grew between 5.6 percent and 8 percent each year. But in 2008-09, annual growth dropped to 4.5 percent, and the rate dropped more in subsequent years. A bond election planned for 2009 was deferred for a year, and after Stanley Elementary School opened in 2009, Katy didn’t open a new school in either 2010 or 2011.
The growth may have slowed, but it didn’t disappear. A 2011 demographic report said that 24 percent of the Katy district was still undeveloped; another 10 percent was being actively developed, and 6 percent was in planning stages for development. Single-family development is projected to increase steadily through at least 2021.
So, district officials came back to the community in 2010 seeking approval of $459 million bond proposal. Voters authorized the construction plan, and the parade of new schools resumed in Katy. In 2012, it open three elementary schools—Wolman, Wilson and Shafer—and a junior high school, Seven Lakes. Later this year, Katy will open its seventh high school, Tompkins High. In addition, the district has hired contractors to build two more elementary schools that are scheduled to open in 2014.
The district will need those schools and more to accommodate the influx of students anticipated in the coming decade. Katy’s enrollment in fall 2012 was 64,652, and the district’s projections, using a moderate growth scenario, show the numbers reaching 72,581 in 2016 and 85,901 in 2021.
Sidebar: New Jersey campus construction
With $1.3 billion to spend on higher-education construction, New Jersey has selected 176 projects at more than 40 institutions for funding.
The allocations range from $645,000 to Princeton Theological Seminary to $357 million to the Rutgers University system. The majority of the funding comes from a $750 million higher-education bond proposal that voters approved last year.
“To keep more of our best students in the state and to make our colleges more attractive research partners … we need modern facilities to remain competitive,” says New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The 176 projects that are being submitted to the state legislature for consideration were winnowed down from more than 250 projects; funding all of the proposed submissions would have cost $2.1 billion. State officials say the projects chosen for funding reflect New Jersey’s higher-education goals and priorities.
“Our team looked for innovative projects that were in line with the missions of the colleges and New Jersey’s needs,” says Rochelle Hendricks, the state’s secretary of higher education.
In addition to Rutgers, other institutions in line for significant allocations are Rowan University in Glassboro ($117.8 million); New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Newark ($99 million); and Montclair State University, Montclair ($93 million).
Among the larger projects:
•$86 million to renovate the Central King Building at NJIT so it can become a hub for STEM education and research.
•$82 million for a new Chemistry and Chemical Biology building on the Rutgers campus in Piscataway (photo above).
•$59 million for a 93,000-square-foot addition to the Life Sciences Center on the Rutgers campus in Newark.
•$48.9 million to build a 119,000-square-foot Nursing and Science facility on the Rutgers campus in Camden.
•$46.9 million to build a 143,000-square foot facility for the school of business at Montclair State.
•$46 million to build a 90,500-square-foot facility for the College of Engineering at Rowan University.
Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.