NEW YORK — In their first day back to school, the 1,300 students at William H. Maxwell Vocational High School may have felt a bit like the fictional Alice walking through the looking glass. The sturdy brick faade of their school - built for the elementary grades in 1912 in Brooklyn's hard-edged East New York neighborhood - looked deceptively familiar. But once inside its walls, students found a whole new world.
As part of a $45.5 million renovation, the cramped and outdated interior - in which the lunch room had no kitchen facilities, two awkwardly combined classrooms served as a makeshift gym, and limited space made it impossible for the school to assemble as a whole - had been gutted. It was replaced with rows of clean and roomy new classrooms, science and computer labs, and even an auditorium and music room. An addition begun in 1994 was also completed over the summer, offering a cafeteria, gymnasium, and center to accommodate the children of teen mothers.
The transformation of William H. Maxwell is the exception rather than the rule. A far more sobering picture awaits a large segment of children in United States public schools as several forces collide. Enrollment is surging as children of the baby boomers feed through the system. A crop of schools built in the 1920s and '30s are coming of age, while buildings slapped up hurriedly in the 1970s and '80s are fraying. At the same time, a wave of state property tax caps following California's Proposition 13 is challenging renewal efforts. Add these together, and the infrastructure of the nation's public schools appears to be buckling under their combined weight.
According to a 1995 report done by the General Accounting Office, about one-third of American schools, serving 14 million students, need extensive repair or replacement. About 60 percent of all schools are estimated to need replacement or repair of at least one major feature. The GAO estimates a total of $112 billion would be required to ensure that all schools were in good working order.
Such numbers understate the problem, says Thomas Kube, executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Depending on whom you talk to, it would require $112 billion to $150 billion just to deal with deferred maintenance," says Mr. Kube. "Then there's another $15 billion to build new schools."
The stories of decay and disrepair are legion. There's a school in Los Angeles where the fire alarm goes off each time it rains. One New York City school put up scaffolding several years ago to protect students from crumbling pieces falling off its aging structure - only to find that eventually the decaying scaffolding was dropping on students' heads. Students in one New Orleans school were alarmed to discover termites eating away at the shelves in their library.
Adding further pressure is the need for new schools. High school enrollments are expected to increase nationwide by 13 percent between 1997 and 2007, with rapidly growing states in the South and Southwest showing gains as large as 80 percent (Nevada) and 49 percent (Arizona). One county in Georgia estimates that it will need three new classrooms a week to keep up with its population growth. Yet funding such projects can deeply divide towns.
The problem is not really a new one, says Eleanor Johnson, assistant director for education and employment at the GAO. On the contrary, as a nation, "We do this quite regularly." Dr. Johnson says she was fascinated when she recently found editorial cartoons from the 1940s and '50s dramatizing the poor physical condition of many of the country's schools. "There were even some from immediately after World War I that showed the overcrowded schools even as we were busy erecting skyscrapers."
Johnson's theory is that "We go in 20- or 25-year cycles. We build a rash of schools and then they're ignored." Today, she says, we're on the downswing of one of those cycles. Johnson insists that the nation has the money to deal with the problem. But, she says, the question remains, "Do we have the will to spend it?"
As part of its 1999 budget, the Clinton administration has proposed federal tax credits to pay interest on nearly $22 billion in bonds to build and renovate public schools. "Some say the federal government shouldn't have a role in school construction," says Julie Green, a spokeswoman for the US Department of Education. "But given the magnitude of the problem, it's essential. Our legislation would help to build and modernize 5,000 to 6,000 schools."
But many are skeptical that the government can help much. Sure, says Kube, the legislation puts "about $22 billion on the table to build schools, money that that states might not have had otherwise." But compared with the magnitude of the problem, he adds, "It's a drop in the bucket."
Traditionally, localities have borne the brunt of school building and repair costs, although almost half of all states also offer some financial assistance. In Maryland, for instance, says Yale Stenzler, executive director of the Maryland public schools construction program, there's a strong history of state funding and no statewide cap on property tax. As a result, he says, "We're in a good position relative to what's going on in some other states."
The state has set aside $225 million in 1999 for school repairs and construction, about 65 percent of the $340 million in estimated needs. But that 65 percent figure is a strong one compared with many years in the past, says Mr. Stenzler. "We were in the 20 to 40 percent range for a long time." Just now, he says, school building funds are strengthened by the fact that "the economy is strong and the needs are really there." Not all localities are as fortunate as those in Maryland, however, he points out. "It depends on the district," he says. In some districts, "They're at the crisis point."
And it's not just a funding shortfall that creates problems, experts say. Some say it's been so long since the last surge of school construction that most school districts have few if any employees with the skills required to guide such a project, and many school districts will be vulnerable to corruption and inefficient practices.
Others worry that there are no national standards for school facilities, which makes it difficult to ensure that poor neighborhoods are getting buildings as sound as those in more-affluent areas. Still others fret that there's not enough focus on the needs of today's higher-tech education or the focus on smaller class size.
But in Brooklyn, William H. Maxwell principal Barbara Elk says she's just plain grateful. A recent study by the city comptroller estimates that over the next decade, New York's 1,028 aging schools will require $28.4 billion in repairs. The budgeted amount is $12.5 billion.
The new school sends a message to students, says Ms. Elk. "It shows the kids we like them, we feel good about them." Kube puts it more strongly. A clean, well-cared-for building "sets a tone for the rest of a child's life."
THE FIVE AGES OF SCHOOL BUILDINGS
* Phase 1: the first 20 years of a building's life. Maintenance costs normally are limited to minor repairs and small improvements to reflect changes in the instructional program.
* Phase 2: the period between 20 and 30 years. Facilities require increasing amounts of annual maintenance and more frequent replacement of worn-out equipment.
* Phase 3: from 30 to 40 years. General maintenance needs increase rapidly. Most of the original equipment should have been replaced, and major items, such as roofs and lighting fixtures, will need replacing during this time period.
* Phase 4: from 40 to 50 years. This is a time of accelerated deterioration. A 50-year-old building is frequently too new to abandon, if well constructed, but too old to be an effective resource.
* Phase 5: more than 50 years old. Usually the building should be completely reconstructed or abandoned.
Source: University of Michigan study
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