In Many Districts, the Schoolhouse Needs Paint, Plaster, Computers

FROM coast to coast, in cities and suburbs, the American schoolhouse is crumbling.

Aging infrastructures are adding to the burden of shrinking budgets and burgeoning enrollments confronting many school districts.

Take the city of Hemet, Calif., for example. With 43 percent of its students going to school in "portable" classrooms and the rest attending classes in decrepit school buildings, the city declared a state of emergency and started looking for creative ways to fund improvements.

"We've tried to raise money through every legal alternative means," says Marvin Feir, Hemet Unified School District's assistant superintendent for facilities planning. That includes declaring the city a redevelopment zone in an effort to gain additional state funds for school construction.

Hemet, a former retirement community southeast of Los Angeles, has seen an influx of young families in recent years, which has led to severely overcrowded schools. The school district, which extends beyond the city and into the surrounding mountains, includes nearly 14,000 students.

Like many districts, Hemet not only needs new schools but faces a backlog of "deferred maintenance" on existing buildings. The majority of Hemet's 16 schools are at least 30 years old.

"We need more than $25 million just to bring our existing schools up to current building specs," Mr. Feir says. The district anticipates needing seven new schools in the next decade.

"There aren't sufficient resources to support the needs of the community," Feir says. "We're in constant competition for funds to support one group of beneficiaries versus another."

Out of desperation, the City Council declared Hemet "blighted" late last year. They hoped to take advantage of a loophole in the tax law that would free local taxes and attract redevelopment funds from the state.

But some of Hemet's 50,000 residents opposed the designation of their thriving city as a redevelopment zone.

"The whole concept of redevelopment was being abused," says Thomas Byler, a retired Hemet resident who spearheaded a local campaign against the redevelopment plan.

Mr. Byler considers the plan unethical. "For our leaders to take a stand on loopholes in the law was only teaching our children how to bypass the system," he says.

Late last month, Byler's petition drive succeeded; the City Council rescinded the ordinance declaring Hemet blighted.

"The politics just got too difficult," says Gaila Jennings, the mayor of Hemet and a part-time fine-arts teacher at one of Hemet's elementary schools. "Everyone seems to agree about the need, but the politics these days seem to be very difficult."

"At this point, our only option is to ask the community to support a general-obligation bond measure," Feir says. A study conducted last year in Hemet found that the chances of passing a bond issue were slim. "It will be a hard fight," Mayor Jennings says.

Despite their decrepit school buildings, most American taxpayers are in no mood to vote for increased funding for public schools. In Holyoke, Mass., for example, voters rejected tax increases for the schools twice in six months last year. After voters rejected two referendum proposals in Cicero, Ill., the city developed a plan to divert tax revenue designed for commercial development to fund construction of a new school.

A survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that 3 out of 4 principals nationwide face tighter budgets and growing enrollments. Of the 650 principals from 41 states who responded, 51 percent said they had put building repairs and construction on hold because of budget crunches.

Deferred maintenance has caused 1 out of 8 school buildings to deteriorate to the point of providing an inadequate environment for learning, according to a survey by the American Association of School Administrators. Many schools in current use were constructed during the baby-boom era of the 1950s and '60s. Half of the 110,000 school buildings in the United States were built 30 to 40 years ago, the AASA survey found.

A parents' organization in Washington, D.C., has threatened to sue the district if action is not taken to repair school buildings. Last year, the group released a report listing 11,000 building and fire-code violations in 152 public school buildings. They estimate that $150 million will be needed to make long-delayed repairs.

In addition, the increased use of computers and other high technology creates a need for upgraded facilities.

"There's going to have to be a complete redesign of school buildings," says Glen Earthman, a professor of education administration at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg. "If we're going to have break-the-mold schools, buildings are going to have to reflect that." Improved buildings and facilities are essential if the US is going to meet the education goals set by President Bush and the nation's governors, Professor Earthman says.

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