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This old schoolhouse

Age, indifferent maintenance, new demands place school buildings at risk

ATLANTA (CNN) -- When politicians, experts, officials and parents warn that America's public schools are crumbling, they're not just referring to educational standards. Many schools are literally, physically falling apart.

A 1996 report from the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, estimates that 14 million children -- about a third of the total student population -- attend schools considered unsatisfactory. Some 60 percent attend schools considered satisfactory, but which have at least one inadequate building feature (such as roofing, plumbing, electricity, or heating and air conditioning).

For many cash-strapped school districts, under pressure to improve student performance and teacher salaries, building maintenance falls to the bottom of the list of priorities. The common practice of "deferred maintenance" -- putting off non-urgent work, sometimes for decades -- creates, in effect, a maintenance debt.

C. Kenneth Tanner, a professor at the University of Georgia's School Design and Planning Laboratory, says that he has seen the effects of deferred maintenance first hand.

"It's more pronounced in the rural areas," Tanner says. "You can drive less than 100 miles [from Atlanta] -- Greensboro, one of their elementary schools, you'd think was in the third world."

Though the problem schools are mostly concentrated in rural areas and inner cities, the same issues arise across the country. "Although the two-thirds of schools reported to be in satisfactory condition are found in every state, the one-third of schools reportedly not in satisfactory condition are also found in every state," the GAO report said.

In addition to simple repair and maintenance, many schools face new standards and old hazards:

  • Schools are required to improve access for the disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Violence in schools has led to increased security demands.
  • The Internet has become all but essential in modern schools, and while some 95 percent of schools are now connected, bringing the cable to the door is only the beginning. In the poorest schools, only 39 percent of classrooms are wired, and there is one Internet-connected computer per 16 students.
  • A California study of 200 elementary schools found potentially hazardous levels of lead-based paint in one-third, and high lead levels in drinking water in one-fifth.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that one school in five has occasionally dangerous radon levels in at least one room.

More than skin deep

Even beyond the aesthetic and safety concerns, deteriorating school buildings leave their students at an academic disadvantage. Several studies have found that students in well-maintained schools perform better than students in poorly-maintained ones.

In Washington, D.C., one study found, after adjusting for socioeconomic factors, that students in schools rated "poor" scored 6 percent lower on standardized tests than students in schools rated "good" and 11 percent lower than in schools rated "excellent."

Tanner cites poor care of carpeting as a common issue that causes health problems, especially in play areas for young pre-kindergarten students, who may urinate on the floor. "We [Tanner and a research assistant] would come out sneezing and with watery eyes within two minutes," he says.

"It's an easy to assess factor," Tanner says. "It starts to affect their health right away."

Poor maintenance generally can lead to mold spores, which cause respiratory ailments, Tanner says. "We found a school in South Carolina that had a tremendously high rate of absence," he says. "The roof had not been maintained, and the gutters were overflowing and backing up. Inside the walls, we [found] all kinds of ... mold spores and fungus."

Even the cosmetic condition of schools can affect students' morale, behavior and academic work. A 1993 study in Virginia found that graffiti, poor or no air conditioning and noise, among other factors, were associated with a drop in test scores.

"Any time you have poor quality of paint for any length of time, that tends to affect children's behavior and, consequently, their performance," Tanner says. He also says that air conditioning and heating equipment, as it ages, becomes noisier, which can hinder learning.

The high cost of aging

All of the infrastructure problems listed are most acute in older schools -- and the median age of American public schools is 42 years, with 73 percent built before 1969. The last boom in school construction was to accommodate the "baby boom" generation in the 1950s and '60s.

Repairing or replacing those aging schools is a daunting enough task, but it will not be enough; the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 2,400 new schools will be needed by 2003 to accommodate increases in the school population, what the department calls the "baby boom echo."

Some schools have turned to temporary measures to accommodate the flood of new students. Libraries, gymnasiums, cafeterias, temporary trailers and even storage closets have been pressed into service as makeshift classrooms. This overcrowding, in turn, leads to more wear and tear on the buildings, and has also been linked to poor academic performance.

The costs add up. The GAO estimates the cost to repair, renovate and replace schools at $122 billion. The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, estimated the cost of modernizing schools at $322 billion -- $268 billion for infrastructure and $54 billion for new technology.

And as more and more school systems start repair and construction projects, the increase in demand may force construction costs higher still. That is what has happened in the state of New York, where newly-available state funds led to a boom in school construction, which drove up the cost of labor and materials.

In recent years, federal funds for school repair have fallen victim to pressure to balance the budget. This year, the Clinton Administration has proposed more than $1.3 billion in loans and grants for five years. A bill in the House would cover the interest on $25 billion in bonds, so that local school boards would only have to repay the principal. That proposal has a bipartisan majority as co-sponsors in the House.

But help from the federal government will, at best, only cover a fraction of the needed repairs and new construction. State governments and local school boards will need to come up with the rest, and to change the habits that allowed the schools to reach their current condition.

"I think our major problem is education of school boards," Tanner says. "I believe that if people are well-educated and well-informed, they will come to the right decision."

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