Restore, or start over?

Laws often encourage new construction over updating well-built, and well- loved, schools

For 85 years, schoolchildren in Kokomo, Ind., have been learning their ABCs inside the familiar brick walls of the 280-student Howard Elementary School. But that's a tradition that may soon be coming to an end.

Like many other older school buildings, Howard is slated to be torn down and its students sent to a brand-new, larger school nine miles away.

"We get at least a phone call or two every week from someone saying, 'I live in such-and-such a community, and the school board wants to tear down my local school,' " says Martha Frish, senior program officer in the Chicago office of the Washington-based National Trust of Historic Preservation, which recently placed "historic neighborhood schools" on its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

With 24,000 American schools now more than 50 years old, a move toward new construction is hardly surprising. But some critics say existing policies and attitudes make destruction of the old buildings almost inevitable.

Some states, including Massachusetts and Minnesota, have a "60 percent rule," which withholds state funding from old school renovations if the cost exceeds 60 percent of the expense involved in building a new one.

Many observers say that makes sense. Education and demographic patterns have changed, they argue, and new school construction can offer benefits like sophisticated technology, better athletic facilities, and air conditioning. More families also live outside town centers, where there is often more land available, allowing for construction of larger campuses.

But others argue that the old schools were better and more attractively constructed. Also, they are often centrally located in communities and tend to be smaller, something increasingly considered a plus.

Kokomo's Howard School is a traditional structure but has been upgraded to include a satellite system and high-speed computer access lines. "There are no cracked ceilings or rusty pipes," says Brenda Underwood, parent of a Howard student and member of a group organized in opposition to its closing. "To tear it down would be a huge waste of money and community pride."

Much new construction emphasizes spaciousness and light that old schools can't always provide. The Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) in Scottsdale, Ariz., recommends at least 10 acres for an elementary school, 20 for a middle school, and 30 for a high school, plus one acre for each 100 students. Some preservationists say such standards often spell the end for old buildings.

"Those guidelines are for new school construction and are not intended to discourage renovation," says Barbara Worth, marketing and communications director of the CEFPI. In many cases, she says, renovation is the best decision for a community.

But others say architects may make presentations that favor new construction.

"There's a tremendous cost to all this," Ms. Frish observes. "There's the demolition cost of the old school, the acquisition of a new site, and the loss of a sense of community." Also, she says, much new construction offers features like flat roofs, which are cheaper to build but more likely to require repair, due to leaking, within a decade or so.

Barbara Elk, principal of the William H. Maxwell Vocational High School in the Brooklyn borough of New York, says she got the best of both worlds when her 89-year-old school underwent a $45.5 million renovation in 1998. The sturdy brick exterior of the school stayed, along with decorative features like the front interior stairway. Much of the inside was gutted to allow for the creation of modern computer and science labs and a new gym.

"We didn't lose our identity, and we've got a building that my custodian will tell you will probably still be standing 500 years from now," Mrs. Elk says. "It wasn't just the right decision; it was the only decision."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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