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By THOMAS E. GLASS

Deteriorating school buildings: and the walls come a-tumblin' down

Any building erected before 1900 is a candidate for the wrecking ball, although some are preserved as historic monuments. In Illinois 141 such buildings exist, not as monuments, but as working schools. Replacing them would cost about $1 billion, and those are just the oldest schools. Hundreds of old school buildings from Chicago to Cairo fail to provide space for needed academic programs, and many are unpleasant and unsafe for students and teachers.

Illinois' inventory of school buildings is falling apart . . . . Approximately 29 percent of the Illinois classrooms in use in 1987 were in schools built more than 50 years ago. The national average is 19 percent

Illinois' inventory of school buildings is falling apart at a time when new, high technology education is needed so that Illinois' public school graduates can help the state be competitive in the economy of the 21st century. The cost of substantially reconstructing the public school infrastructure would be high, but future cost in lost economic and human productivity would be higher.

Approximately 25 percent of the Illinois classrooms in use in 1987 were in schools built more than 50 years ago. The national average is 19 percent. In 1987, according to the most recent available data from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), there were 4,525 school buildings used for educational purposes in Illinois. There were 105,216 available classrooms, with an enrollment capacity of over 2.5 million. (See table for details on the age of Illinois school buildings.)

ii901121-1.jpg
Photo by Thomas E. Glass

Perry Elementary School was built in 1897 and is one of four elementary school buildings in the Belvidere School District.

About half (2,200) of the state's school facilities are inadequate, according to the Education Writers Association of

Washington, D.C., in its report, Wolves at the Schoolhouse Door. "Inadequate" means noncompliance with the Illinois Life and Safety Code Act, federal structural requirements or requirements for barrier-free access for the handicapped or that a building is so old as not to be able to house a minimum educational program. Significantly, the ISBE rated only 844 of the state's school facilities "good."

Does age alone determine a building should be replaced? (See "Life cycle of a school building" on page 23.) Unfortunately, Illinois does not possess sufficient data to assess the capability of adapting its present school buildings to house new instructional programs needed to prepare students for the 21st century.

In the private sector, an outmoded physical facility that is causing a reduction in productivity and profits is replaced, retrofitted


November 1990/Illinois Issues/21


ii901121-2.jpg
Photos by Thomas E. Glass

At the top is Logan Elementaty School in the Belvidere School District. It was built in 1898. Below is Lincoln Elementary School, also in the Belvidere School District. It was built in 1895. Only one elementary school building in the district was built this century.

or remodeled. Similarly, inadequate facilities or those in poor condition affect educational productivity. Science and computer technology are obvious examples. If an older building cannot handle adaptation to computers and modern labs, curricula and teaching are restricted. In the private sector, decisions to rebuild, retrofit or remodel are made in corporate boardrooms. In the public sector, for the typical Illinois school district, these decisions are made by local taxpayers, who must approve referenda for construction of local school buildings.

Illinois educators are well aware of the decay and inadequacy of their school buildings, but throughout the 1980s school buildings were on the losing end of most budget battles. Capital funds that districts have been able to allocate for facility improvements have gone generally for federally and state-mandated asbestos abatement. Funds raised from bond sales authorized for districts by the Life and Safety Code Act may only be used for repairs that make buildings safe and habitable but not for remodeling a building to increase educational efficiency. Generally, local school districts have not had the funds to improve the teaching environment or to address the need for development of new high technology programs.

It is axiomatic across Illinois that when school budgets must be cut or when funds absolutely must be found for employee raises, the only noncontroversial area for reduction is the district's maintenance budget. A visitor to Illinois could take one look at its school buildings and comment that tight district maintenance budgets have been in effect for a long time.

School enrollment in Illinois has leveled off after falling 20 percent over 20 years, but it likely will rise a bit in the next decade. There are, however, great variations in any district-by-district review.

Rural areas and downstate cities with limited employment opportunities, such as Rockford, continue to lose students. In areas experiencing significant enrollment gains such as Batavia, Carol Stream, Geneva, Indian Prairie, Naperville and St. Charles, all in Kane and DuPage counties new schools are under construction or in the planning stage, and deactivation of any older school is difficult. Within Chicago, the escalating population in Hispanic neighborhoods has resulted in students packed into aged buildings with portable classrooms parked out back. At the same time in some other Chicago neighborhoods, there are few children in the schools.

Given all the variations within Illinois, can local school districts rebuild their infrastructures quickly enough to furnish adequate housing for instructional programs in the 21st century? Probably not. The problem is especially severe in urban areas such as Chicago, Elgin, Rockford, Peoria, Joliet and East St. Louis where aging, possibly condemnable buildings, are numerous. Unfortunately it is in these areas where the greatest number of at-risk as well as minority students go to school. Small towns, such as Belvidere in Boone County, have increasing school populations but insufficient bonding capacity to replace their pre-1900 buildings.

A visitor to Illinois could take one look at its school buildings and comment that tight district maintenance budgets have been in effect for a long time

Local financing of school buildings is generally dependent on the school district's share of the property tax and requires local referendum approval to increase taxes to guarantee repayment of bonds sold to finance construction. When the property tax base is flat or not expanding, or when school populations are static, a local referendum for replacing old school buildings may not sell. Referenda are even difficult to sell in wealthier areas in suburban districts around Chicago where homeowners complain of high taxes on their property. In small towns, such as Marseilles, LaSalle, Lockport and Peru, the decay of local industrial bases has made it nearly impossible to deal with aging and inadequate facilities. Other downstate, rural school districts will probably find it extremely difficult to pass referenda to build new schools because of the falling assessed valuation of farmland and the declining population of

22/November 1990/Illinois Issues


Life cycle of a school building

School buildings have a life cycle, according to a study by Benjamin Handler of the University of Michigan. Their five phases are:

1. The first 20 years of a building's life. Maintenance costs normally are limited to minor repairs and small improvements to reflect changes in the instructional program.

2. The period between 20 and 30 years. Facilities require increasing amounts of annual maintenance and more frequent replacement of worn-out equipment.

3. From 30 to 40 years. General maintenance needs increase rapidly. Most of the original equipment should have been replaced, and major items such as roofs and lighting fixtures will need replacement during this period. These should not be viewed as emergencies, but as necessities arising from the natural aging of the building.

4.  From 40 to 50 years. This is a time of accelerated deterioration. In most instances, the needs, neighborhood or community have changed; the school may no longer be located where the children are. Buildings in this phase may be too new to abandon (if well constructed) but too old to be an effective resource of the district.

5. Beyond 50 years. Usually the building should be completely reconstructed or abandoned.

Thomas E. Glass

school-age children. Consolidation of the less efficient and less wealthy districts may logically resolve some difficulties in financing new buildings to replace outmoded ones, but consolidation often fails the test of the required referenda approval. The question becomes whether the state, instead of local property taxpayers, should finance or help finance rebuilding of the school infrastructure. During the past decade, the Illinois General Assembly has been far more generous in funding construction of state prisons than of local schools. Since 1985, with the passage of the Education Reform Act, most of the political discussion about schools has focused on organizational reform, consolidation and reconstitution of the school aid formula. Adjustment of the state aid formula to make state support of districts more equitable is a $2 billion per year problem; rebuilding Illinois schools could be a $10 billion problem.

In Chicago, the ability of the schools, especially the high schools, to accommodate advanced technology programs must be created. Hundreds of buildings need to be replaced. Last year the Chicago Public Buildings Commission and the Chicago schools were able to agree on a city-backed $392 million bond sale to finance construction of 38 new schools and remodeling others. The new schools will be owned by Chicago and leased to the school district. This arrangement passes the cost on to taxpayers without referenda approval.

To replace all pre-1900 school buildings across the state would cost $l billion. To replace the 1,108 schools built between 1900 and 1930 would add another $7.7 billion (figuring approximately $7 million apiece). If only half of these were replaced and the other half retrofitted or remodeled, the cost might be halved.

That leaves untouched the state's 3,276 school buildings constructed since 1930, but some of those need substantial improvements. In the 1960s, when many Illinois school districts had rapidly expanding enrollments, the cheapest type of construction was used by some districts. These buildings are now 30 years old and are quickly wearing out. For example, Schaumburg Elementary District now faces extensive remodeling of its 1960s-era buildings and must also provide additional

Publicly owned permanent school buildings in Illinois by construction year

Main buildings

Additions

Total classrooms

Enrollment capacity

Square footage

Construction period

number

%

number

%

number

%

number

%

number

%

1850-1899

141

3.4

18

.3

2,489

2.4

63,278

2.4

6,371,714

2.4

1900-1929

1,108

24.4

299

5.2

18,057

17.4

452,339

16.8

48,977,528

18.5

1930-1934

122

2.7

78

1.3

2,160

2.1

54,180

2.0

6,056,270

2.3

1935-1939

219

4.8

184

3.2

3,694

3.5

93,581

3.5

10,751,936

4.1

1940-1944

78

1.7

81

1.4

1,013

1.0

25,514

1.0

2,652,602

1.0

1945-1949

174

3.8

162

2.8

2,458

2.3

60,963

2.3

5,988,250

2.3

1950-1954

520

11.5

631

10.9

9,207

8.8

232,813

8.7

22,633,549

8.6

1955-1959

720

15.9

915

15.8

16,109

15.3

422,958

15.7

38,885,477

14.7

1960-1964

441

9.7

940

16.2

13,669

13.0

349,727

13.0

31,629,068

12.0

1965-1969

384

8.5

998

17.2

14,089

13.4

366,095

13.6

33,409,766

12.6

1970-1974

323

7.1

733

12.6

11,542

11.0

299,717

11.1

28,043,624

10.6

1975-1979

215

4.7

491

8.5

8,018

7.6

203,991

7.6

22,221,985

8.4

1980-1984

72

1.6

221

3.8

2,419

2.3

59,403

2.2

6,059,712

2.3

1985-

8

.2

57

1.0

292

.3

7,220

.3

792,498

.3

Total

4,525

5,808

105,216

2,691,779

264,473,979

Source: Illinois State Board of Education.

November 1990/Illinois Issues/23


space for new programs, such as computer centers. A realistic estimate for the repair, replacement, retrofit or remodeling of these post-1930s school buildings statewide would be at least another $1 billion.

. . . decisions to dedicate large amounts of state funds to . . . the school infrastructure might not be too popular with Illinois politicians

The total price tag would be from $5.5 billion to $9.7 billion call it $10 billion. That total, however, is based on conservative current estimates of school building construction costs, and the price could be much higher even double. But any bold state-backed school facility funding proposal faces little chance in the General Assembly. In this era of impending recession and anti-tax sentiment, decisions to dedicate large amounts of state funds to reconstitute the school infrastructure might not be too popular with Illinois politicians. Proposals have been bandied about:

   "impact fees" on developers and builders paid directly to the local school district or the state;

  a special state school facility construction fund financed from "dedicated revenues" of one or a combination of state "sin taxes," such as liquor sales, horse race betting or cigarettes;

  a grand "Build Illinois "-type program.

If Illinois politicians expect difficult problems in the 1990s, they need look no further than funding equity for schools, funding education reforms in Chicago and across the state, and replacing aged and inadequate schools in the state. Both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Neil F. Hartigan and Republican Jim Edgar, proclaimed that they would be "education governors," but does that extend to state financing of school construction?

If the goal is to prepare Illinois for economic vitality in the 21st century by educating its young people for the future work; force, the next governor and the General Assembly face a long-term decision. If they put off the decision, by 2010 Illinois' public school infrastructure may be so weak that it will stymie learning and a modern economy.

Thomas E. Glass is professor of educational administration in the Department of Leadership and Educational Policy Studies at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.

24/November 1990/Illinois Issues


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