August 20, 2002

More funding is needed for school construction

  • The state isn’t keeping pace with demand
    KJM & Associates

    “One out of every four school buildings in America is inadequate” with “broken plumbing, poor ventilation, and overcrowding...”

    This statement is not from a 19th-century Dickens novel. This statement is about public schools including Washington State in a report for the U.S. Department of Education entitled, “Condition of America’s Public School Facilities.”

    Certainly there is no shortage of needs when it comes to causes seeking additional funding from an already strapped state budget. But surely our children must be at the top of our priorities.

    If the moral argument doesn’t sway you, there also is a legal mandate. The state constitution clearly charges that it is “the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”

    While this is usually interpreted to refer to the teaching that goes on in the classroom, it should apply equally to the facilities where the teaching takes place. Under our current system that is not the case.

    If the moral or legal arguments won’t sway you, there is the financial reality of the billions of lost construction dollars and the negative ripple effect on the state economy.

    How bad is the problem?

    According to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI):

    • Washington has 296 K-12 districts that own 1,915 schools. Of these, 1,379 schools are eligible for matching funds. Construction costs would be $10 billion to $15 billion.

    • There are 4,445 “portable” buildings, the equivalent of 222 elementary schools. Replacement cost: another $4.4 billion.

    • Projections for 150,000 new students by the year 2020. Another $2 billion to $4 billion dollars.

    According to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee:

    • Higher education has 2,082 facilities owning two-thirds of all state properties. The review committee is presently funding a facilities preservation study of conflicting higher education priorities.

    “Without additional state resources, some local districts, particularly the poorer districts, will be unable to provide adequate or even safe facilities for their students,” said the Governor’s Council on Education Reform 10 years ago.

    On average OSPI provided $158 million in construction matching funds over the past three years for new, addition, modernization and replacement projects. OSPI provides nothing for maintenance and repair.

    If construction funding were to remain at $158 million a year through 2020, the $2.8 billion total wouldn’t begin to touch the $16.4 billion to $23.4 billion expected to be required to complete the state’s K-12 projects.

    How did we get here?

    Traditionally, the state has relied on timber sales to fund K-12 school construction and bonding for higher education. But political activists opposed to timber harvesting and wood-boring beetles have eaten into the K-12 construction dollars. The state has also reached bonding capacity.

    More demand for funds

    Construction isn’t the only issue. Other impacts that ultimately drive up the cost of education are school programs: mandated state learning, early childhood, behaviorally disadvantaged, special education, enrichment, technology and community use. On the construction side, compliance with the Growth Management Act and the Endangered Species Act drives up costs, as does more-restrictive federal, state and local building codes.

    "Some of the state’s neediest K-12 schools failed to qualify for state matching funds."

    With limited state funding, local school districts are under increasing pressure to provide more. A school district that cannot provide local funding also cannot participate in the state match program.

    Ironically, this relieves the state of its full financial responsibilities, since local school districts that are unable to provide their share of financing are excluded from the state’s budget. As a result, $45 million was transferred from K-12 projects to higher-education projects this year.

    How others do it

    Some say there has to be a better way. In six states — Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Ohio and Wyoming — court mandates dictate the state funding process.

    Construction is only part of the issue

    The funding systems in these other states are not without criticism, however. For example, all these funding systems appear to lack funding for ongoing maintenance and repair. This means that even if a building can be constructed it will not be maintained.

    This lack of support is documented in the increasing number of school-building system and environmental failures. The deferred backlog of existing health, safety and facility deficiencies is estimated at over $1 billion.

    The lack of funding for school facilities in general is a school-system issue.

    “The very nature of the turnover of school boards and school administrators results in greater orientation to short-term operating needs than to long-term capital needs,” says a report prepared by the Association of School Business Officials.

    If you believe that we are short-changing our children in the state’s schools, make your opinion heard in the state Legislature through your house and senate representative. Thank them for the hard work that they do and express your understanding of these very trying economic times.

    Then provide a friendly reminder that you strongly support a permanent, reliable, secure, source of capital funding for school construction, along with a dedicated financial stream for ongoing facilities maintenance.

    Clint Marsh is an educational program manager at KJM & Associates, a program and construction management firm. Marsh recently participated as a member of the OSPI school repair and renovation federal grant review committee. Marsh can be reached at (425) 451-3881 or by e-mail at

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