Why nation's school buildings are in disrepair

Few buildings get harder use than schools. Unlike flop-eared, ragged spiral notebooks that students toss in the wastebasket at the end of the year, classrooms, roofs, boiler rooms, sandboxes, and gymnasiums must be repaired.

Far too many haven't. And the result is US school buildings are deteriorating faster than they are being maintained or replaced.

There has been a dramatic decline in school construction and repairs as a result of dwindling enrollments and tax limitation measures (29 states have such measures), according to a recent survey conducted by the National School Boards Association (NSBA), the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), and the Council of Great City Schools.

Add to this the effects of the current recession and the accumulated cost to repair elementary and secondary schools is at least $25 billion, the report states.

One area that school officials are hoping aid will come from is in the proposed jobs-bill the new Congress is considering.

''Schools should be considered prime candidates for some of the billions Congress is considering spending on the infrastructure,'' says Bruce Hunter of the AASA. ''Repairing a roof, painting, replacing a window are all the kind of skills any local community can provide. There's a schoolhouse down the block from everyone.''

''We are conducting a full review of just this possibility,'' says Kathy Bushkin, an aide to Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado.

The most serious and frequently mentioned areas in need of repairs are: roof repair and replacement, boiler repair and replacement, physical access for the handicapped, window replacement, and heating needs. In some instances, schools have been forced to temporarily close.

More than 70 percent of the 100 school districts surveyed listed roof repair as the chief maintenance concern. (The districts ranged in size from New York City, with an annual budget of $3.2 billion and deferred maintenance of $680 million, to Elizabethtown, Tenn., with annual expenditures just under $500,000.)

''If you sit in on a school-board budget meeting, school maintenance will be one of the first items to be cut when money is short,'' says AASA's Mr. Hunter. ''And right now we're looking at a situation where money just isn't available.''

''We've been through a period (the baby-boom years of the 1960s and early '70 s) when it was a higher priority to provide facilities than to maintain them,'' says Rodney Davis of the Dallas Public Schools.

Annual spending on school facilities increased an average 1.4 percent between 1970 and 1980. This was less than on any other public works, except highways and bridges.

Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics and the results of the survey indicate the proportion of school-system budgets devoted to maintenance has fallen from 14.1 percent in 1920 to 11 percent in 1950 to 6.7 percent in 1982.

''Boston public schools are still operating on the 1972 maintenance budget of says. ''We need $40 million for boilers and other routine maintenance now,'' she says. Compounding the maintenance problem for many schools has been high energy prices, particularly the cost of fuel oil. Rising costs ''shortchanged'' schools of money needed to replace boilers or to switch to a cheaper form of heating.

Only one district reported its maintenance program as current. The other 99 showed an average deferred cost equal to 13 percent of their total 1982 budget.

Even districts considered relatively wealthy, such as Fairfax County, Va., and Jefferson County, Colo., have deferred bills catching up with them. Both school systems were included in the survey of 100 districts.

Big-city school systems showed the greatest deferred maintenance costs. They possess a disproportionate number of the buildings constructed before 1920. Electrical and plumbing systems are often antiquated and in need of replacement.

Maintenance problems can also be exacerbated for local school districts by state and federal requirements NSBA officials say. Section 504 of the US Rehabilitation Act requires that schools be accessible to the handicapped. Yet the cost of an elevator between floors can be $90,000.

This is not to say schools are unsafe, says Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. ''Codes are very strict on fire and safety. Some states, like Illinois, have fire and safety code funds and laws that allow local school boards to levy taxes without voter approval, if it is an issue of safety rather than just maintenance.''

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