$85 billion gap: 12 actions for improving health and safety of school facilities

Schools that serve lower-income students face the biggest construction shortfalls
By: | September 10, 2021
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U.S. schools face an annual $85 billion shortfall in facilities funding, and schools that serve lower-income students face the biggest gaps, a new report finds.

Districts spend about $110 billion on maintenance, operations and capital construction each year. But they need $195 billion to meet health and safety standards, says the “2021 State of Our Schools Report” by the 21st Century School Fund, the International WELL Building Institute and the National Council on School Facilities.

Increased construction costs, building inventory increases and a sharp decline in facility spending since the Great Recession are driving this widening gap despite the efforts of communities and districts to upgrade their schools, the report says.

Back in 2016, the same report pegged the funding shortfall at $46 billion.

“Unfortunately, while local districts are struggling with making facilities safe in a pandemic, they are faced with longstanding deficiencies in their aging infrastructure, which makes this very difficult,” said Mary Filardo, executive director, 21st Century School Fund and lead author of the 2021 report.

Nationally, local districts cover 77% of school facility costs, with only 22% coming from states. High poverty districts spent an average $3.8 million per school on construction from 2009-18 while low-poverty districts spent more than $5 million.

Rural districts with high poverty schools funded capital improvements at $2.3 million per school, well belove the $4.3 million national average.

“This is another area where those who have the least suffer the most,” said Rachel Hodgdon, president and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute. “Schools that are in a state of disrepair—suffering from poor indoor air quality due to lack of ventilation and proper filtration and compromised water quality—are often in the most disadvantaged communities. These schools weren’t sufficient before the pandemic; today, in many cases, they are just plain dangerous.”

The report urges school districts to dedicate 15% of ESSER COVID relief funds to capital improvements in low-wealth and high-need communities. This would give administrators about $30 billion over the next three years to chip away at deferred maintenance projects and make health and safety upgrades.

The report covers dozens of actions that schools, state and local governments and other stakeholders can take to boost facilities funding, including:

  1. Establish a facilities office in each state department of education or as an independent state agency.
  2. Appoint an independent advisory committee to guide state facilities’ decisions.
  3. Enact state legislation to provide school districts the flexibility to raise revenue from sources other than property tax.
  4. Establish dedicated state revenue streams for repayment of PK-12 capital improvement bonds.
  5. Allow districts to use up to 10% of their federal Title I Funds for major repairs.
  6. Provide relevant building condition system data to facilities maintenance and operations personnel.
  7. Conduct facilities workshops for parents and community members about facilities planning and decision-making.
  8. Require every district to have an up-to-date five-year master facilities plan guided by public engagement and available online.
  9. Train and educate school administrators, school boards and other stakeholders on the importance of facility planning.
  10. Maintain a publicly accessible state facilities inventory of school district buildings, grounds and other district-owned land or facilities.
  11. Conduct regular statewide assessments of PK-12 school facilities.
  12. Share school-level facilities data and assessment findings in real-time with school-level staff.