The True Cost of Deferring Maintenance in Our Schools

Posted on: September 1st, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Renee Kuhlman

The Richardson School in Cheyenne, Wyoming (Photo: Mary Humstone)

The Richardson School in Cheyenne, Wyoming (Photo: Mary Humstone)

It’s almost the end of summer and like many school districts across the country, my family is anxious to finish up maintenance projects before school starts again.

As preservationists, we know that regular maintenance is essential to keeping an older structure around for future use. However, according to a recent report from the American Association of School Administrators, the percentage of school districts predicting that they will defer maintenance is rising dramatically. In the 2008-2009 school year, 18 percent of school districts predicted they would defer maintenance; that number rose to 36 percent in 2009-2010. In 2010, more than half of the country’s school districts—55 percent—predicted they would defer maintenance.

In 1995, the Government Accounting Office estimated that $113 billion was needed to bring a third of the country’s K-12 schools into good repair. Today, experts estimate it would take $216 billion dollars (see the 21st Century School Fund’s Repair for Success: An Analysis of the Need and Possibilities for a Federal Investment in PK-12 School Maintenance and Repair for more information).

Industry experts typically recommend that two to four percent of the current replacement value of a building should be spent every year on maintenance (see the National Research Council’s Committing to the Cost of Ownership: Maintenance and Repair of Public Buildings for more information).

Using this standard, researchers at the Cowan Institute for Public Education Initiatives estimate school districts in Louisiana should be spending approximately $275 million annually on maintenance and repairs. In 2007-2008, they spent $155 million. So, Louisiana’s school districts need to spend an additional $120 million per year is needed to keep local school buildings from deteriorating.

Although school repair and maintenance may not be imminently evident to the public, it’s a vital component of a quality learning experience. An effective “operations and maintenance program can drastically increase student and teacher comfort and performance.”

Because school districts are facing unprecedented challenges during this recession, preservationists need to get involved now. In order to prevent the deterioration of older and historic schools, we should be encouraging state and local officials to:

Provide funding to address the backlog. In Hawaii, a concentrated effort since 2001 has cut in half the original $720 million dollar backlog of school maintenance. Annual funding by the legislature has ranged from $35 to $150 million.

Set aside 2%-4% of replacement cost for maintenance. Iowa requires school districts to allocate 2% of the replacement value annually for building maintenance.

Keep maintenance funding separate from operations funding. With shrinking budgets, districts often face tough choices between facilities and instructional programs. But whenever possible, money set aside for maintenance should not be used for other purposes.

Use federal funds when available. Montana Reinvestment Act (HB645), which implements the federal American Recovery Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, has made $20 million available to school districts via the Quality Educator Formula. This money may be used for deferred maintenance and energy improvements and must be spent by September 30, 2010.

Get creative with financing. In Hawaii, grants to schools match funds with volunteers and private donations from a nonprofit whose mission is to “Repair, Remodel and Restore” schools. This relationship has saved the state more than $22 million since August 2001.

Establish a Revolving Loan Fund. Maine’s School Revolving Renovation Fund makes maximum loans of up to $3 million for projects that contribute to safe, healthy, and adequate school facilities. Each project must be designed and constructed with materials that provide long-term durability and meet energy efficiency standards as defined in state statute.

Offer matching grants. In 2009, California provided $255 million in state matching funds, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, to assist school districts with expenditures for major repair or replacement of existing school building components through its Deferred Maintenance program.

Weigh applications for building aid based on past maintenance efforts. The Alaska Department of Education’s application for capital improvement projects assigns points based on the percentage of total maintenance expenditures relative to the building’s replacement value. Maximum points are given when the percentage is 5% or greater.

Provide information for preventive maintenance. Maryland offers guidelines for maintenance that include life expectancies of different systems and best practices for training and scheduling repair work. The Maine Department of Education provides districts with a capital asset management tool and data to help districts annually appropriate resources for the preservation of their schools.

Provide specific guidance for maintaining historic schools. Colorado’s Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation developed a Universal Conservation Maintenance Plan that summarizes historic building systems and maintenance principles.

Survey and assess existing schools. This first step in the planning process is often overlooked. Components such as ADA access and historic significance should be included. In 2009, Portland Public Schools (PPS) surveyed its 100 facilities to gain “an understanding of the historical significance of its existing properties so that a planning process can begin for future building rehabilitations and renovations.”[i]

For more suggestions, read Helping Johnny Walk to School, developed through a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Save A Penny, Lose a School: The Real Costs of Deferred Maintenance, a publication of the Rural School and Community Trust.

From an educational perspective, regular maintenance of schools prevents interruptions of instruction, improves morale, and indicates to students that their education is valued.

From a fiscal standpoint, maintenance decreases renovation costs because fewer large-scale repairs are needed. It also reduces operational costs, increases energy efficiency, and lengthens the life-cycle of building materials and systems.

Finally, from the preservationist’s perspective, well-kept schools encourage private and public investment in the surrounding neighborhood and protect the community’s heritage.

Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School program and spent the weekend frantically weatherizing her family’s 1969 ranch-style home.


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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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