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Rundown schools: whose responsibility?

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, SCHOOLS ARE DETERIORATING, EDUCATORS ARE WORRYING AND COURTS ARE PUSHING LEGISLATORS TO SOLVE THE MONEY PROBLEMS.

Leaky ceilings. Exposed wire. Crowded classrooms. Principal Kent Paredes Scribner has seen it all. These conditions are as commonplace at Sunland Elementary School as chalkboards and desks. Sunland Elementary, one of the oldest schools in the Phoenix area, has had few, if any, repairs since it was built in 1953. Originally the school was meant to serve 600 students. Now more than 800 students from primarily poor, minority families are enrolled.

"Crumbling buildings and cramped conditions do terrible things for the kids, their school spirit and their feeling about themselves," says Scribner. His school is located in the Roosevelt School District in south Phoenix. The amount of money it would take to fix it would virtually wipe out the district's $43 million annual budget. There's simply no money for repairs.

Even basic needs have gone unmet. Superintendent John Baracy says the district's 12,000 students don't have science labs or up-to-date libraries, and they have very little communications technology, unlike their counterparts in wealthier districts. Many older school buildings are not equipped with proper electrical wiring for computers, frustrating efforts to introduce technology into the classroom.

"Clearly, there's an impact on student learning," says Baracy. "You cannot learn science if you don't have science labs. You cannot expand your knowledge of the world if you don't have quality books to read."

CRUMBLING SCHOOLS

Schools like this in inner-city Arizona are not unusual. A U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) study released in 1996 revealed that one-third of schools nationwide need extensive repair or replacement. Further, 60 percent of schools surveyed reported at least "one major building feature" in disrepair such as the roof, exterior walls, windows, plumbing, heating and air conditioning or electrical power. Forty-six percent lack the basic electrical wiring to support computers, modems and modern communications. More than 14 million students attend the schools surveyed by the GAO.

The report, "School Facilities: America's Schools Report Differing Conditions," also notes that the problem of deteriorating school buildings cuts across all socioeconomic levels. While 38 percent of schools in urban areas reported at least one inadequate building, 30 percent of rural schools and 29 percent of suburban schools documented similar concerns.

"You may think this is a problem of the poorest districts in the country, but that's not so," notes U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, a Democrat from Illinois. "It relates more to age than anything else." Braun, who commissioned the GAO report, sponsored successful legislation in 1994 that set aside $100 million for school building repairs. The program, however, was rescinded by the 105th Congress.

COST OF REPAIR

The estimated price tag totals a staggering $112 billion, according to the GAO. A state-by-state comparison reveals some startling figures. In New York City, officials in the country's largest school district estimate the cost to refurbish aging school facilities at $7.5 billion over the next five years. The bill for repairs and expansion in California's public schools climbs to $17 billion, a reflection, in part, of the state's soaring student enrollment.

Deteriorating schools in Virginia have some of the worst problems in the country. Experts estimate building improvements will add up to $6.5 billion over the next five years, affecting a million students in 1,800 public schools. A study by the Virginia Department of Education released last summer reports that even if local taxes were doubled, the revenue generated would not meet the cost of necessary school renovation.

WHAT HAPPENED?

The list of examples runs on, but a key question emerges: How did schools get to this point? Several factors consistently surface in interviews with educators, legislators and school finance experts: competing budget priorities, unfunded federal mandates, soaring student enrollment and outdated school financing formulas. Some critics also think administrators are exaggerating the extent of the problem. Other detractors lay the blame for deteriorating schools at the feet of local school boards, arguing some elected officials mismanaged public tax dollars and made poor budgeting decisions.

Arizona House Majority Leader Lori Daniels says that some school districts chose to construct lavish facilities and tie up all their resources in one school, thereby leaving themselves ill-prepared for future facility needs. Others, she says, chose to put capital maintenance funds in their operations budget, using the money for instruction instead of repairs.

Florida lawmakers have criticized school districts for using millions of dollars earmarked for school construction for such things as library books, audio-visual equipment and the salaries of maintenance workers.

These uses of school construction funds have triggered angry reactions from Florida lawmakers. "In the state of Florida, school boards and school districts are losing the public relations battle," observes Representative Bill Sublette, who chairs the Florida House Education Budget Committee. "It's getting to the point where they have lost all credibility."

The Florida Legislature passed HB 2121 this session that requires school districts to reduce by 15 percent each year the use of earmarked construction funds for maintenance staff salaries, prohibiting such use altogether by 2004. At the same time the bill provides cash rewards to districts that practice "frugal construction practices."

The Orlando Republican, who also co-chairs the Select Committee on School Facilities, says most of his colleagues think the state should not get involved in funding school repair and new construction. "After all, schools got themselves into this pickle, and now they have to get themselves out," says Sublette. He advocates giving districts "the tools they need" to solve the problem themselves.

Representative Jerry Melvin, chairman of the House Committee on Education Innovation that sponsored HB 2121, says the bill does just that. "You shouldn't focus on the 15 percent reductions. The focus should be that we grant districts up to 20 percent more in construction funds if they follow some commonsense guidelines.

For their part, schools argue they haven't had much choice but to delay school repairs in favor of other more immediate needs. Local school boards and administrators say it's more palatable to delay infrastructure costs than to cut academic programs and teaching staff. Educators acknowledge - for better or for worse - it's a problem that's easy to ignore.

"Part of it is that you walk into a school, whatever age it is, and unless the roof is literally leaking or the heater doesn't work, you don't notice it," says Anne Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association in Washington, D.C. "That has been some of the mindset."

Further, school administrators say funds to repair roofs, properly wire schools and improve ventilation, among other needs, also are siphoned off by unfunded federal mandates such as asbestos removal and improving access for disabled students. Three-quarters of all schools reported having spent $3.8 billion in the last three years to comply with federal mandates, and two-thirds reported needing $11 billion more over the next three years.

The issue of school maintenance and repair is further exacerbated by soaring student enrollment. The number of students attending the nation's public schools in grades K-12 is expected to grow by 20 percent between now and 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That's roughly 6,000 new schools just to accommodate the growth over the next 10 years.

What's more, educators say, traditional methods of financing school repair are inadequate. Districts are largely dependent on local property taxes. But educators in poor communities point to shrinking property wealth, which directly affects how much money schools can raise.

Not only is the financing inadequate, but local voters have not been entirely sympathetic to administrators' pleas. Reports indicate that a fourth of all education bond proposals or tax issues have been defeated in recent years at the local level where the link between taxes and school improvements is closest to home.

Outside observers like Craig Wood, an education professor at the University of Florida, say repairing the nation's schools can't be dumped entirely onto the laps of legislators or educators. Both shoulder some blame. "It's true that local school board members make poor decisions. By the same token, so do state legislatures," says Wood.

The school finance expert acknowledges that some school districts have not worked hard enough to resolve school maintenance issues. As a result, those problems - left unaddressed - have spiraled out of control, and demand state intervention.

On the other hand, Woods says legislators create financing formulas that place tight constraints on what districts can and cannot fund, leaving them with hard decisions.

"I don't know of any school board in America that knowingly lets roofs leak because they just like leaky roofs. They have decided to let roofs leak because they have to purchase textbooks."

WHERE TO GET THE MONEY

Only a handful of states provide the bulk of funds needed for school repairs, according to former state legislator and school funding expert John Myers of the Denver firm of Augenblick and Myers. Another 10 to 15 pick up a significant portion of expenditures for capital outlay. As many as 25 states provide only minimal aid from the general fund, says Myers.

The courts are not giving legislatures much choice. School districts in several states have successfully challenged their heavy reliance on property taxes to pay for building repair.

"The states should be held responsible because, ultimately, it's the state constitution that says the legislature is the primary source for providing equal educational opportunity for students," notes Myers. "When property tax values vary so much among school districts, it becomes very difficult for some to provide the facilities necessary for a good education. So, it falls back on the legislatures."

Professor Wood says legislators "should approve an equitable formula to distribute state assistance for all capital outlay needs just as we have put in everything else that applies to public schools. It is the responsibility of the state in partnership with local school districts."

More than 10 states have comprehensive programs to help with school maintenance and repair. These plans typically provide money and technical assistance. In recent cases, the courts have stepped up the pressure to pay for repairs.

LAWYERS, SCHOOLS AND MONEY

Arizona is a dramatic case study of the kind of legal entanglement some lawmakers have faced in recent years. Similar stories have unfolded in other states, including Texas and Ohio. Arizona schools, largely dependent on local property taxes for major repairs, hit rock bottom in the 1980s. Soaring student enrollment, coupled with older buildings especially in poor communities, was straining school budgets. Administrators say there were few places to turn for help. Efforts to increase property taxes in poor districts created disparities without generating significant revenue, according to Roosevelt Superintendent Baracy. So educators asked the Legislature to rework the state's school finance formula to include additional funds for school repair and construction above and beyond what lawmakers traditionally set aside.

Lawmakers agreed to spend $1 million on a report to study Arizona school conditions; it revealed that some were in serious trouble. But many legislators remained unconvinced the problems were as widespread as some administrators wanted them to believe. "Basically, the governor and legislative leadership don't necessarily agree that the problem is so out of whack in Arizona," says Ted Ferris, director of the Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee. "Most lawmakers think the schools are in pretty good shape, and they believe the current method of bond elections and property taxes is working OK."

But 70 school districts that disagreed, including Roosevelt, approached Timothy Hogan, the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. He put together a lawsuit based on constitutional requirements that the Legislature establish a general and uniform public school system.

Hogan filed the suit in 1991, arguing that the state funding formula resulted in huge disparities between wealthy and poor districts. The plaintiffs demanded that the Legislature overhaul the school finance act in a way that would more equally distribute revenue. The case went as far as the Arizona Supreme Court. The school districts won. In 1994, Arizona became the first state in the country where the court ruled its system for funding school construction is unconstitutional solely because of its heavy reliance on property taxes, which caused disparities in revenue between property-rich and property-poor school districts. The court placed the responsibility for a solution in the hands of the Arizona lawmakers.

The Legislature looked at several different plans, ultimately choosing to set aside roughly $30 million annually for school repair. Lawmakers created the State Board for School Capital Facilities to oversee distribution of the new funds. During an emergency session, legislators appropriated another $70 million for school improvements. Currently, the board sits on a $100 million capital improvement fund.

But school districts involved in the lawsuit rejected the plan, pushing instead for changes in the school funding formula. "Lawmakers want to address this with money instead of trying to change the way the system operates," says Hogan.

The school districts returned to court, demanding a deadline for lawmakers to come up with an improved school funding formula. Again, the court ruled in their favor. The Arizona Legislature has to come up with a new plan by June 1998.

This session, Arizona lawmakers developed an additional plan aimed specifically at poor districts. The new law, Assistance to Building Classrooms (ABC), sets aside $32 million a year in perpetuity for schools with low property wealth. The money comes from existing sales tax revenues and guarantees a little more than $500 per student yearly for construction and school repair. High growth districts also fall under the measure. They are eligible for state funds once they have maxed out their local tax levies. The measure also sets aside up to $400,000 a year for inspection of school buildings. Under the plan, schools must be inspected every five years in an effort to spot problems early on.

Majority Leader Daniels believes the problem of deteriorating schools in her state is "much smaller than originally alleged." She says Arizona lawmakers found that the "great majority of local school boards are functioning quite well." In most districts, she says, schools are being built, and facilities are well maintained.

However, Daniels says, some districts can be helped with oversight and technical support. "We found districts where the discretion allowed to local school districts was abused."

The trick was developing a plan that would take care of the problem areas and still allow districts that are doing well to continue to do so without limiting local authority. Daniels says that the Legislature's work over the past three years accomplishes that. "The new system requires the state board to provide technical assistance to school districts and regular maintenance inspections of school facilities. However, it is still the local school board's responsibility to address the identified needs."

Daniels says the Legislature's plan is specifically aimed at the state's system of funding construction and major repairs, which is what the court found unconstitutional. "Our system for funding the maintenance and operations of school districts is highly regarded," she says, and lawmakers wanted to leave that intact.

WILL THE COURTS AGREE?

Doubt lingers in some minds as to whether the plan will satisfy the courts. School officials, such as the state superintendent of public instruction, Lisa Graham Keegan, a former legislator, have vowed to challenge the new law.

Keegan says the Legislature's plan forces schools "to give up a considerable amount of control." She says the state school facilities board has placed stipulations on how schools can use building improvement funds, including what square footage costs can be.

"The underlying inequities are still present," she argues. "You can't just throw a mini-formula on top of a grossly disparate formula that deals in millions of dollars and call it good."

Professor Wood says the problem with legislatures designing formulas has been "politics by printout. Do my constituents benefit as opposed to the state as a whole? All politics is local, and that makes creating a balanced school formula difficult."

Observers predict that as more states become involved in funding, the more likely it is that legislatures will want more say in how schools spend the money. "That's a huge issue," acknowledges legislative budget expert Ferris. "The golden rule comes into play - he who has the gold makes the rules. If the state funds schools, it may very well want more say in how the money is spent."

The story unfolding in Arizona is significant because other states are facing similar challenges. An Ohio trial court overturned the state's school funding formula largely because of disparities in building repair and maintenance. In its decision, the Ohio court crafted a constitutionally acceptable framework to fund schools, placing emphasis on building repair, reduction in class size and accessibility for disabled students. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld most of the trial court opinion in March.

In Texas, courts have ruled over the years that inequities in school facilities are as unacceptable as inequities in operating expenditures. Recently, the Texas Supreme Court warned the Legislature that its new formula could face a constitutional test in the near future if lawmakers did not continue to work on "providing all districts with equal access to the operations and facilities funding necessary for a general diffusion of knowledge." The Texas Legislature, facing soaring student enrollment, is now buried under a $3 billion backlog in capital expenditure needs.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Several state courts, as well as Congress, have recognized that the quality of the learning environment affects how well a student performs in school, according to the GAO report. This may become a crucial point for school boards, lawmakers and, most important, voters who ultimately will help decide how to pay for school maintenance and repair.

"We have to give our students today the tools to function in a globally competitive market," argues U.S. Senator Moseley-Braun. "We cannot sit back on this issue. We ought to leave partisanship at the schoolroom door. This ought to be something that is bipartisan and commands community consensus."

NO FEDERAL RELIEF IN SIGHT

Schools and legislatures can't expect help from the federal government for school repairs, at least not this year. President Bill Clinton's Partnership to Rebuild America's Schools Act, a $5 billion proposal that would have helped school districts finance the cost of renovating or replacing aging buildings, fell victim to the budget reconciliation settlement in August.

Supporters of the proposal say it will be back on the drawing board next session, but criticism of it continues. Critics maintain that school construction should remain a local responsibility. There is also concern that federal aid would only drive up building costs because in this proposal, a very small amount of federal money would have invoked the Davis-Bacon Act requiring that prevailing, or union, wages be paid workers on federally funded construction projects.

As far as education goes, the federal share has been "a pittance," according to David Liebschutz, associate director of the Center for the Study of the States at New York's Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.

Federal interest may have increased with the depth of voter concern, but it's the states that have to come up with the money, he says.

Even if a similar plan passes next year, it might not make a significant dent in the vast amount needed for school repairs, which the Government Accounting Office puts at $112 billion. Laura Walker, who lobbies for the California School Boards Association, says the amount in the Clinton proposal wouldn't have come close to solving the problem. Calling the $5 billion "a drop in the bucket," she said that California alone could use that much.

PENDING CASES

Arizona California Idaho Minnesota New Hampshire New York North Carolina Pennsylvania South Carolina West Virginia Wisconsin

SCHOOL FINANCE LITIGATION DECISIONS BY STATE SUPREME COURTS

Landmark cases in Texas and California in the 1970s marked the beginning of 25 years of school finance litigation that has affected almost every state in the nation. As a result, 17 states have had their funding systems ruled unconstitutional by state supreme courts.
STATE FUNDING RULED UNCONSTITUTIONAL

State Decision Date

Alabama(*) 1993
Arizona 1994
Arkansas 1983
California 1971
Connecticut 1977
Kentucky 1989
Massachusetts 1993
Missouri(*) 1993
Montana 1989
New Jersey 1973 and 1990
Ohio 1997
Tennessee 1993
Texas 1989
Vermont 1997
Washington 1978
West Virginia 1979
Wyoming 1980 and 1995

STATE FUNDING SYSTEM UPHELD AS CONSTITUTIONAL

State Decision Date

Alaska 1997
Arizona 1973
Colorado 1982
Georgia 1981
Idaho 1975
Maryland 1983
Michigan 1973
Minnesota 1993
New York 1982
North Dakota 1994
Ohio 1979
Oklahoma 1987
Oregon 1976 and 1991
Pennsylvania 1979
Rhode Island 1995
Washington 1974
Wisconsin 1989
Virginia 1994

* Lower court ruling served as final decision since case was
unsuccessfully appealed by state.

Source: Used with permission of Education Commission of the States




CRAFTING A SOLUTION IN COLORADO

Some states are trying to stay out of court. Colorado, for one, isn't taking any chances. House Majority Leader Norma Anderson has asked several attorneys to review the state's school funding formula, which she says is Similar to Arizona's. The attorneys have told Anderson the formula would most likely withstand a court challenge. Still, the Republican, who chaired an interim committee on school infrastructure last summer, has nagging doubts.

"The issue is do we want the courts deciding how we do this, or do we, as a public, make the decision? I am afraid we will have a lawsuit. That's what it boils down to, and I don't want the courts to make the decision."

Anderson notes that 24 percent of Colorado's school buildings were built before 1950. "If people stop and think - we built the interstate system in 1956. We're crying about how bad our roads are. Think about where we are putting our children."

Anderson unsuccessfully proposed a bill this session that would have diverted a portion of lottery money for school repair and new construction.

One month before the session concluded, Anderson and Senate President Tom Norton stunned colleagues and educators alike when they unveiled a sweeping plan to overhaul the state's tax structure. Under the measure, local property taxes for schools eventually would be replaced by a combination of corporate, sales and use taxes.

Anderson acknowledges the plan had little chance of passing so late in the session, but Democratic Governor Roy Romer said he might consider a special session to take a closer look at the proposal.

Lesley Dahlkemper is a Denver freelance writer specializing in education issues.
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Author:Dahlkemper, Lesly
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Date:Sep 1, 1997
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