The Best Solution for Students & the Economy: Healthy, Safe School Buildings

July 12, 2010 | Written By:

A Normal Classroom at Douglassby Dominic from Baltimore

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

I constantly read and hear stories about schools cutting services, teacher and staff layoffs, deferred maintenance, reduced investment in after-school programs. A recent report by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) encapsulated much of what I’ve been hearing and reading, and it made the case for the dire economic conditions of our schools, with a particular note about the deteriorating condition of school buildings.

Their report [pdf], “A Cliff Hanger: How America’s Public Schools Continue to Feel the Impact of the Economic Downturn,” is based on a survey of school administrators conducted this spring. Administrators from 45 states participated in the survey.

What stood out to me most was that, although the need is acknowledged, the neglect continues:

A widely understood but seldom discussed issue by state policymakers, superintendents, boards and their communities is the deferral of maintenance, as well as infrastructure costs (including transportation) and programmatic decisions. These deferrals often begin as economic necessities but evolve into safety and adequacy issues. While some stimulus funding to schools has been provided to primarily increase employment, the state of the physical facilities of many schools has never been worse and promises to decline further. Poorly maintained school facilities invite difficult decision making that promises to erode the quality of schooling.

The details? Schools are increasing deferred maintenance (more than 55 percent of schools reported this), outsourcing maintenance programs (20 percent), reducing custodial services (46 percent), and it goes on and on.

How far will this go?

My concern that that we’ve cut school funding so greatly that there is nowhere left to cut. And from the perspective of our facilities, how much longer can an aging building stock survive? In 2009, our nation’s schools were given a “D” rating by the American Society of Civil Engineers. And how many roof collapses or emergency maintenance delays can we accept before a real crisis happens? I’m concerned that our inability to invest in the most basic structures of our education systems may lead to either a major crisis, or a series of smaller (and very expensive) issues in the not-too-distant future.

It’s worth noting that this reality stands in direct contrast with the highly-publicized promise of efforts to build green school buildings. These green, healthy initiatives have in many cases been very successful in providing a great learning environment that promotes health and education while conserving resources.  But the truth is that these green “school buildings of the future” are the exception rather than the rule. As we consider their promise, it’s important to remember that we’re barely maintaining the schools of today. (In many districts, new construction dollars and maintenance dollars come from completely different budgets; so when education budgets are tight, it’s deferred maintenance that is put up as an option to avoid cutting teachers or staff. It’s not a winning equation.)

But the news is not all bleak. AASA also recognizes that investing in our school system can be a vital part of an economic recovery:

One of the engines to economic recovery is schooling. A strong system of schools fuels the workforce development and economic diversity essential to a recovering economy. Reducing investment in schools when capacity is needed to sustain recovery only prolongs the economic downturn. Therefore, it is critical that Congress and the U.S. Department of Education work to ensure schools have the resources they need to fuel economic recovery and growth, along with the flexibility to make the dollars go as far as possible.

Investing in our schools can be part of the solution for problems we’re facing in education, workforce development, health and safety. There is great promise in transforming this bleak picture into one of community investment in our schools, in kids’ health and education.

As part of our advocacy for healthy and safe school buildings, HSC recently presented the Through Your Lens photo contest and exhibit with our partners at Critical Exposure and the 21st Century School Fund to raise awareness about the condition of school buildings across the country. The slides below show some of these images — illustrating both the problems and the promise of our school buildings. Visit for a closer look at how schools really appear to those who learn and work in them every day.

Get the flash player here:

Plus: Here are a few more good resources on building new schools or maintaining
old buildings:

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