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Costly US School Construction Gets 'D' Grade

Friday, March 17, 2017

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The American Society of Civil Engineers released its Infrastructure Report Card earlier this month and, while much of the focus within the 16 categories it grades has been on subjects like the country’s roads (D), bridges (C+) or dams (D), the only category that focuses solely on a type of building construction also received a near-failing grade.

America’s schools were given a D+.

The Report Card

Although the grade is a nudge up from the solid D that schools received on the last report card in 2013, it just means that not much has changed, and the letter, by the ASCE’s definition, means that this infrastructure is “in poor to fair condition and mostly below standard.”

According to the report, more than half (53 percent) of schools need improvement to reach “good” condition and about 24 percent of the country’s 100,000 public school buildings were rated as being in fair or poor condition.

Nauticashades, CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The ASCE noted that districts would need to spend $58 billion just to maintain and operate the current facilities.

The reason behind the schools’ low numbers is basically the same factor that's behind all of the other low grades: money.

Financial Structure

According to the report card’s No. 1 information source, the 2016 State of Our Schools report conducted by the 21st Century School Fund, national underinvestment in the public school system has made it harder for districts to keep up with basic maintenance and repairs, and that type of backlog leads to large repairs and capital construction projects.

While the U.S. General Accountability Office hasn’t completed a study of K-12 public schools since 1995, the SOOS report pulled from available maintenance and operations data from 2008 and estimated that “districts were carrying at least $271 billion in deferred maintenance and repairs. When including requirements for alterations and scheduled renewals of existing facilities, the estimated pricetag doubled to $542 billion.”

The ASCE noted that in a current year—not counting any of the deferred maintenance that’s already stacked up—districts would need to spend $58 billion just to maintain and operate the current facilities. It estimated, however, that districts should spend another $77 billion to upgrade the facilities enough to reduce the backlog. Another $10 billion is estimated to accommodate an anticipated increase in enrollment within the decade.

Bryson109, CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In more than 30 percent of public school facilities, windows, plumbing, and HVAC systems are considered in 'fair' or 'poor' condition.

“While school districts collectively invested as much as $49 billion per year in school facilities from 2011 to 2013 for new facilities and capital construction, it is estimated that the nation should be spending $87 billion per year to renew facilities so they provide healthy, safe, and modern learning environments—leaving a $38 billion annual investment gap,” according to the report card.

What That Means for Construction

The lack of funding means that many school facilities and ammenities that would normally require small annual construction had been found to be in poor condition.

"In more than 30 percent of public school facilities, windows, plumbing, and HVAC systems are considered in 'fair' or 'poor' condition. Outdoor facilities such as parking lots, bus lanes, drop-off areas, fencing, athletic fields and sidewalks are also problematic. 36 percent of school parking lots are in 'fair' or 'poor' condition, as well as 32 percent of bus lanes, 31 percent of athletic facilities and 27 percent of playgrounds,” according to the ASCE.

While the funding for these management and operations projects combines local, state and federal sources, it also comes from the general operating budget, which means constructional maintenance is in competition with all of the other essential parts of running a school system such as faculty salaries and instructional equipment.

Capital construction, on the other hand, is largely financed by the local school districts with state assistance varying wildly from state to state and almost no money coming from the federal government, and the decline in capital spending over the years is credited to the Great Recession of 2008.

“… the poor lending climate and reluctance to burden taxpayers after the recession had a striking impact on spending. This drastic decline in school construction is greater than the decrease in overall education spending since the recession,” according to the SOOS report.

B Hilton, CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While the funding for these M&O projects combines local, state and federal sources, it also comes from the general operating budget, which means constructional maintenance is in competition with all of the other essential parts of running a school system such as faculty salaries and instructional equipment.

With standard annual funds nowhere to be found, schools let things go until they accumulate into big-ticket capital projects, which are then financed and left up to the municipal governments, representatives and voters. These projects still only occur periodically and leave behind debt.

The Plan

At the end of each category’s report card, the ASCE made a list of recommendations.

In addition to several points of planning, ASCE had a few suggestions for all levels of government when it comes to schools’ crumbling infrastructure:

  • Continue to encourage school districts to adopt regular, comprehensive major maintenance, renewal and construction programs, and implement preventative maintenance programs to extend the life of school facilities.
  • Expand federal and state tax credits and matching funds to support increased use of school construction bonds and simplify the process for local school districts to obtain facility construction financing for improvements and modernizations.
  • Explore alternative financing, including lease financing, as well as ownership and use arrangements, to facilitate school construction projects.

In a condition summary the report card stated, “State and local governments face a constant challenge to keep up with operations and maintenance and the need for new construction, in addition to accommodating improved health and safety standards, stronger accessibility requirements, and new technology.”

   

Tagged categories: American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); Budget; Construction; Education; Finance; Infrastructure; Schools

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