Dilapidated schools a national problem

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Since 1994, voters in 11 urban school districts have approved more than $7 billion in bonds to pay for school construction projects. Well over half of that amount was issued by two cities, Los Angeles and Detroit. Voters in Houston and San Diego are scheduled to vote on another $2 billion this month.

Chicago is spending big bucks on school rehabilitation and construction. However, voters here have had no say because the School Reform Board has kept property tax increases below the level that would trigger a referendum. In addition, the City of Chicago, which is not subject to a property tax cap, sold bonds for school construction. Since 1995, the School Board and the city have approved the sale of $2 billion in capital improvement bonds.

In a 1995 series of reports, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported the backdrop to the flurry of school capital. The GAO found American schools needed $112 billion in repair work overall. Specifically, a third of the country’s 80,000 schools needed major repair or replacement, 60 percent needed work on major features like roofs, and nearly half lacked electrical wiring to support computers.

Urban districts alone account for $50 billion in need, estimates Michael D. Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools.

The following are snapshots of the school construction needs and rehabilitation efforts in several urban school systems.

SAN DIEGO

THE NEED: The nation’s sixth-largest city, San Diego has experienced rapid growth in recent years. If its referendum is successful, the district plans to spend $389 million to build 13 elementary schools, $137 million to replace or expand two other elementary schools and a high school, and $131 million for additional classrooms at schools now using portable units.

Existing school structures also are in disrepair. About 40 percent of San Diego’s school buildings are at least 60 years old, and deferred maintenance alone is estimated at $258 million. A total of $387 million is needed for major repairs in existing buildings and $209 million for technology improvements such as fiber optics.

Also on the district’s wish list: $133 million for new and upgraded science classrooms, $84 million for new or expanded libraries and $40 million for other projects.

THE STATUS: Voters will decide this month on a $1.51 billion bond issue, the first in six years and the largest in the city’s history. A series of public hearings held in San Diego neighborhoods over 18 months determined the total amount of need for the system. The district and individual schools already have signed contracts that outline how much money will be spent at each site. San Diego officials have their eyes set on matching funds from the state of California, which has a $6.7 billion pot for elementary and secondary schools.

HOUSTON

THE NEED: A year-long architectural and engineering study found Houston schools had $1.2 billion in repair needs alone—not including new school construction. The average Houston public school is 43 years old.

THE STATUS: Voters will decide this month on a $678 million bond issue, the amount the district needs to build 10 new schools and repair nearly 70 others. District officials and other supporters are looking to replicate the success of San Antonio, which passed a $483 million bond measure in September 1997. When Houston tried in May of 1996 to raise $390 million to build 15 schools, voters rejected the package.

LOS ANGELES

THE NEED: The majority of L.A.’s money will go toward repairs, maintenance and retrofitting of existing schools—most buildings in the district are 30 to 70 years old. Still, $900 million will be spent on new schools and extensions. Enrollment in L.A. schools rose from 539,000 in 1980-81 to 691,000 this year. Shortly before the referendum, district officials reported they expect an additional 50,000 students over the next five years.

THE STATUS: Voters approved the country’s largest bond sale for schools, $2.4 billion, in April 1997 after several unsuccessful attempts to reach the two-thirds threshold mandated by the state. In 18 months, the district has completed 1,750 of the 11,000 projects slated over five years, drawing complaints that it is moving too slowly. District officials counter that any large capital project takes time to get off the ground; they say they expect to meet the five-year time table.

Concern has grown this year, however, that the $2.4 billion might not cover all the planned work, touching off disputes about what should come first, new schools or repairs. With repair bids coming in 8 percent to 15 percent higher than estimated, the taxpayers committee that oversees bond funds has recommended shifting $500 million from new schools to repairs, the Los Angeles Times reported.

State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) estimates the district might get as much as $1 billion in matching funds if a statewide bond issue is passed.

DETROIT

THE NEED: About 150 of the 263 school buildings in Detroit were built prior to 1930; the average age is 61 years old, and some date to the 1800s. Assistant Superintendent Kifah Jayyousi, who handles facilities management and capital improvements, estimates the city has $5 billion in unmet repair and new construction needs.

THE STATUS: In 1994, Detroit voters approved a $1.5 billion, 15-year school construction program despite lack of support from the Chamber of Commerce and daily newspapers. At the time, it was the largest school construction mandate in the country. But little progress has been made on school repairs because the city’s plans for the money were poorly defined at the outset, some observers say, leading the state Treasury Department to withhold approval of the issue.

“The state of Michigan has been very leery,” says David Littman, chief economist with Comerica Bank. “There weren’t well-enough defined plans for the funds to justify the size of the issue.” A district-business-parent panel last year reviewed the school system’s purchasing, financial and management structures; observers hope for a restructuring that will improve relationships with the state.

For now, says Jayyousi, the state has approved spending $89 million; construction began only a year ago. Since then, he says, more than 20 projects have been completed, including one new school, an addition to another and repairs dealing with health, safety and security. At press time, the district expected state approval shortly for another $220 million worth of projects, including several new buildings and about 20 school additions.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

THE NEED: The GAO found the condition of D.C. public schools to be the worst in the nation, with 91 percent having at least one inadequate building feature, such as crumbling ceilings or deficient heating systems. The only bright spot: With a capacity of 110,000 students and current enrollment of 79,000, the district does not face overcrowding in the near future.

The GAO estimated D.C. needed a minimum of $460 million to make needed repairs; district officials and parents’ groups put the figure at $487 million. The World Bank has estimated the District of Columbia has $6 billion overall in unmet capital needs, including roads, bridges, parks and libraries.

THE STATUS: In September 1994, federal Judge Kaye K. Christian ordered schools closed until life-threatening fire-safety repairs could be completed. The district has delayed the start of classes three years out of the last five to complete essential repairs before children arrived.

A year ago, Washington D.C. settled a lawsuit filed in 1992 by a parents’ organization. Under the settlement, the city will use at least 27.5 percent of its capital project loans to fix up schools. That amounts to $245 million over the next five years. The Army Corps of Engineers is now managing the district’s capital program.

Meantime, a nonprofit group called the 21st Century School Fund is experimenting with what could be a model for school repair in neighborhoods being gentrified, facilitating an arrangement between the district and a private developer. The developer agreed to tear down and rebuild the 26,000-square-foot Oyster School as a 50,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility—and pay off an $11 million bond—in exchange for a piece of the school’s property, on which the developer will build a 200-unit apartment building.

21st Century Director Mary Filardo says this will be the district’s first brand-new school building in 20 years; it will serve a student population that is 60 percent Hispanic. She notes the arrangement would work only in an upscale area, where developers want land. “And sites that are well-located, where the land is most valuable, may not be where [schools are] most needed,” she adds.

NEW YORK

THE NEED: New York City education officials have identified $7.5 billion in building needs, while the GAO put the city’s needs at $7.8 billion. Half of the city’s 1,100 school buildings are at least 55 years old, and 38 percent need massive rehabilitation, according to state officials. Last March, following the death of a 16-year-old girl who was struck by falling bricks, a state Supreme Court justice ordered the city to inspect all its schools. The city Board of Education now estimates that 80 percent of schools need significant upgrades.

Crowding also is a major problem. New York City school enrollment has grown by 100,000 students—to a total of 1,083,000—since 1990. School officials expect up to an additional 90,000 students by 2004.

THE STATUS: In November 1997, state voters rejected a $2.4 billion bond measure that would have provided $960 million to New York City public schools. The city’s last bond measure was a $4 billion outlay in the late 1980s.

Gov. George Pataki last spring vetoed $202 million in state funding that would have gone toward New York City school construction. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani praised the move as fiscally prudent. Several parents’ groups held a press conference after the veto to criticize both men for burnishing their conservative credentials at schools’ expense.