Seattlites Buck a Costly Bid To Repair Crumbling Schools

The nation's 80,000 schools may need as much as $115 billion in physical repairs

KYLE GRAEBNER, a high school freshman in a baseball cap, has no trouble listing the reasons why he would like to see the Ballard High School demolished and rebuilt: ''You can't drink the water. Tiles falling off the ceiling. Mold on the walls. And then there's the earthquake issue.''

Principal Charles Chinn offers the same reasons and more, starting with meeting present-day seismic codes.

The problems, from shortage of electrical outlets for computers to labyrinthine hallways that are hard to monitor, are typical of thousands of school buildings across the country that need major repairs, remodeling, or replacement.

The nation's 80,000 public schools, many either more than 50 years old or built cheaply during the baby boom, need $112 billion of upgrades, according to a report issued last week by Congress's General Accounting Office. The nationwide survey found that one-third of schools, with about 13 million students in attendance, reported needing extensive repair or replacement of one or more buildings.

Classwork affected

''Maintenance is an important part of providing a quality learning environment,'' says Shirley Hansen, a management consultant who has studied the school-building issue.

Ms. Hansen cites recent research suggesting that the quality of the learning environment has a strong impact on student performance. Adjusting for factors such as socioeconomic backgrounds, students attending schools in ''poor'' condition scored on average 5.5 percent lower on standardized tests than those in ''fair'' condition, and 11 percent below those in ''excellent'' school buildings.

School districts ''have been gradually digging themselves into a deeper hole,'' says Hansen, president of Hansen Associates in Annapolis, Md.

Climbing out will not be easy.

Here in Seattle, for example, a school-bond measure has failed four times since 1988. Last November, in an effort to make the $700-million-plus measure more palatable for voters, the repair project was split into two chunks. But part one fell just short of the needed 60-percent approval by city voters.

So the proposal has been repackaged again, this time as a levy instead of a bond. Seattle votes tomorrow on $330 million in taxes to replace Ballard High School and upgrade or rebuild 20 other schools in the district.

Like a five-minute warning signal before a boat race, a modest earthquake shook Seattle residents a week ago, underscoring predictions that a large quake could hit the city.

Opponents of the measure say it is not a simple choice of whether or not to fix the schools. They say the work could be done for half the projected cost, and that voters should require more accountability from the school district.

''These buildings need to be repaired immediately,'' says Linda Jordan, who leads the Ethical School Bonds Committee, which opposes the district's plan. She says years have been wasted pushing a plan that is too costly and lacks independent input.

Ms. Jordan cites a 1991 study that found that pressing needs, including roofs, plumbing, electrical systems, doors, and windows, could be met for $171 million.

When inflation and proposed new cafeterias, gymnasiums, and auditoriums are added in, she says this plan could be carried out today for less than $300 million. ''All it wouldn't do is add more space and new space'' for teaching, she says.

Supporters of the measure call her ideas a ''band-aid approach'' that won't meet the needs of tomorrow's students.

The debate here mirrors others around the United States, where 31 percent of public school buildings were built before World War II and another 43 percent in the 1950s or '60s. Schools built for the baby boom were often not designed to last for decades and are energy inefficient.

Principal Chinn notes that it is the newest part of Ballard High that is the farthest below seismic codes. The box-like brick school was built in 1915 and has been through five significant remodelings. Students and staff won't drink the water, which has high iron and lead content, despite new pipes.

Falling ceilings

Chinn points to one classroom where ceiling tiles and plaster fell one day where students had been sitting half an hour earlier. In a new computer lab, one machine is protected from water leakage by a plastic garbage bag positioned above it.

Because the district hopes to replace the building, ''only those things that require immediate attention get done,'' Chinn explains regretfully.

Plans of the new building hang on a wall near his office. He says the new building will be capable of up-to-date vocational training, use of classrooms by a local community college at night, and easier sharing of the gym, auditorium, and meeting rooms for general public uses.

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