Cold-Weather Closures Expose Years of Underinvestment in Urban Schools
Thanks to a generation of underfunding, many big-city school districts now face deteriorating buildings and billions of dollars in maintenance needs.
Thousands of schoolchildren in Baltimore missed classes last week as a cold snap forced officials to close schools. Frigid temperatures and ruptured water pipes made some school buildings uninhabitable for students and teachers.
Those kinds of closures could become more frequent in cities across the country, many education advocates say, thanks to a generation of underfunding construction and maintenance costs in urban districts.
In Baltimore, the city initially closed four buildings last week due to frigid temperatures inside classrooms. By midweek, city schools CEO Sonja Brookins Santelises announced that as many as 60 buildings were inadequate spaces for instruction. By Thursday, the district made the decision to cancel classes across the entire system, and schools remained closed on Friday with the mercury hovering in the teens. And despite emergency efforts to address the heating issues, several schools remained closed or were forced to dismiss students Monday morning due to lack of heat and, in one instance, a broken water pipe.
But while cold weather triggered the closures, advocates say the ultimate culprit is the poor condition of school buildings across the city.
According to a 2012 report commisioned by the city school district, Baltimore schools need $2.4 billion in capital investment to meet the needs of the district’s 84,000 students. “The $2.4 billion is really a low number. I see it as a snapshot in time, what’s needed to partially address our current shortfall,” says Frank Patinella, senior education reform advocate with the Maryland ACLU.
Baltimore’s aging school buildings reflect a trend across the country. Urban school districts lag significantly behind their suburban counterparts in terms of the quality of the buildings and the money spent on maintenance, renovation and construction.
As a result, many city schools are struggling just to fund the bare minimum of upkeep.
“Cities are mostly dealing with [responding to] emergencies,” says Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which advocates for equity in school construction funding nationwide. “They are not doing their preventive maintenance. You have a small leak in the roof, then it damages the ceiling and then it damages the wall and then you need to do major repairs quickly.”
Nationwide, state and local school districts are spending around $99 billion per year on capital investment and maintenance and operation of facilties, according to the 2016 State of Our Schools Report, compiled by the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities and the Center for Green Schools. The report suggests an additional $46 billion per year is necessary to properly maintain and upgrade facilties and build new schools to keep up with enrollment patterns.
Thanks to demographic growth patterns and uneven investment over the past few decades, the funding gap falls especially hard on urban districts. It's a crisis, Filardo says, that will require a broad overhaul of the way school construction and maintenance is funded across the country. “You can’t solve this problem at the local level or in small, discrete measures,” she says. “It needs state and even federal resources.”
A Widening Gap
The disparity between urban and suburban school buildings began to grow in the 1990s. After more than two decades of flagging enrollment, student populations increased in the mid-1990s -- and so did spending on school construction and renovation. According to a General Accounting Office report from 1995, public schools were in need of roughly $442 billion in capital investment, almost three quarters of which was needed for new school construction.
Local school districts responded and spent $502 billion on capital projects between 1995 and 2004, according to data collected by 21st Century School Fund. More than 12,000 schools were built in this period.
But most of that student growth, and by extension construction growth, was clustered in the suburbs and in more affluent school districts. Between 1995 and 2004, districts in the wealthiest suburban ZIP codes outspent their poorest urban counterparts by roughly three to one, according to analysis by 21st Century School Fund.
The disparity also cut across racial lines. Majority white schools spent about 33 percent more on capital expenditures than majority black schools during the same period, according to 21st Century's report.
While each state’s exact formula for school construction funding varies slightly, the average mix is 82 percent local funding, often from property taxes, and 18 percent state money, according to 21st Century Fund’s analysis. A state may distribute its funds relatively evenly to all districts, but doing so may still leave lower-income areas at a steep disadvantage.
Consider Baltimore. Maryland spends about $300 million annually on capital investment in the state’s 23 school districts. In 2017, for example, according Patinella, Baltimore city schools received $47 million in state construction financing, while adjacent Anne Arundel County received $41 million. Baltimore was able to augment that money with an additional $17 million in local funds. But wealthier Anne Arundel, where the median household income is double that of Baltimore, was able to add another $104 million in capital investment for its school buildings.
“If you just compare the large counties in Maryland, the state has allocated relatively the same amount of school construction money to Baltimore city as it does to other county districts, which we think is unfair,” Patinella says.
“The state would argue that Baltimore city is not managing their projects well," he adds. "But the city is so behind in construction that they have to respond to emergencies and put Band-Aids on buildings to keep them up and running."
Urban school districts often find themselves in a perpetual cycle of using operating budget funds to pay for emergency repairs. That makes it more difficult to show creditors enough available revenue to finance capital improvement, which can make it harder for those districts to borrow money in the future. After several years, such a cycle can result in billions of dollars in capital investment shortfalls, as well as buildings like Philadelphia's J.B. Kelly Elementary School, where mold forced officials to abruptly close the school in October. It remained shuttered for several weeks, says Jerry Roseman, director of occupational safety and health for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. "There was mold growing on everything, and water dripping from the ventilation systems,” he says.
Philadelphia needs $5 billion in capital investment to meet the demands of its student population, school officials said last year. There are currently $3 billion in capital improvements in the pipeline for the next decade.
The problem, says Roseman, is rooted in 25 years of underfunded maintenance. "These are large school systems with lots of needs. The funding that is given is inadequate, and they are charged with responding to a wide range of issues with limited dollars,” he says. In addition to underfunding, Roseman also blames poor governance and a lack of transparency in how the school board allocates money to fix deteriorating schools.
In many cities, the capital needs can be staggering. Los Angeles, for example, recently completed a 20-year, $19.5 billion capital improvement campaign, which included the construction of 131 new schools, new additions on 65 campuses and thousands of modernization projects across the sprawling district. Even after that significant investment, however, L.A. schools still face an additional $60 billion in capital needs, according to the district.
A Federal Fix?
Next to highways, schools buildings are the most expensive and most extensive network of public facilities in the nation. Yet in most cases, states don't receive any money from Washington to pay for school construction and maintenance. "It’s the nation’s biggest inventory of public buildings," says Filardo. But "it’s an orphaned issue."
Congress tried and failed to include school construction in the 2009 federal stimulus. But the effort died as some leading Democrats expressed concerns about federal overreach into local education.
Filardo is among those pushing again for the federal government to contribute to school building construction. The 21st Century School Fund is currently lobbying to include schools in the next infrastructure package. The ideal funding mix, says Filardo, would be 90 percent of school construction money split evenly between state and local authorities with the federal government throwing in the other 10 percent.
Last May, Congressional Democrats introduced the Rebuild America's Schools Act, which would have made billions available to schools who serve high poverty students to fund construction of facilities when those buildings pose a risk to the safety of children and teachers. The bill remains stalled in the House of Representatives.
As recently as June, President Donald Trump mentioned including school construction as part of any infrastructure bill he would propose in 2018. He hasn't offered more details of what that proposal would look like. Some political observers expect the president to announce his infrastructure plan during the State of the Union speech on Jan. 30.