The Stimulus, What Was Not Funded: School Constuction

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Excerpts from the Wisconsin State Journal, “Rebuilding Wisconsin, Part 1: A long and costly to-do list.”

PUBLIC SCHOOLS

West Bend Public School Superintendent Patricia Herdrich said she can hardly bear to walk through the district’s Badger Middle School. Built in the 1920s, the old school is the worst of the substandard buildings in this district about 75 miles northeast of Madison.

There are, Herdrich said, 13 different levels in the school because of the hodge-podge tangle of additions over the years. There are no elevators.

“You can’t make it accessible,” Herdrich said. “I’ve had kids on crutches crawling up and down stairs.”

In hundreds of school districts across Wisconsin, students are stuck in inadequate and even dangerous buildings, jammed into too-small classrooms or housed in trailers in school parking lots, according to Miles Turner, director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators…

The problem is that, since school expenditures were capped by the state Legislature in 1993, the corner that has been most frequently cut by money-starved districts has been building maintenance and repair.

In its most recent survey of school district spending, the Wisconsin Education Association Council found that 82 percent of the 303 districts that responded have cut money for improvements to buildings and grounds.

And 77 percent reported delaying building maintenance or improvement projects. According to the 2007 infrastructure report from the Wisconsin chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the median reported need of the state’s 431 school districts to catch up on repair and maintenance projects is $695,000 while the average need is $1,768,563.

But some districts are in such dire shape that the cost of delayed projects far surpasses those numbers. Herdrich in West Bend said the district’s total deferred maintenance is $80 million.

Bringing Badger Middle School up to standards alone would cost $29 million, she added…

[A]s the stimulus bill was being put together, the state School Administrators Alliance conducted a needs survey of the state’s school districts.

Only 228 responses were received from all 431 districts, but for just those districts, when it comes to repair, maintenance, and building needs topped $2.5 billion.

Referendums have offered relief only in some districts.

In West Bend, for example, voters defeated a $119.3 million building referendum in 2007 by a 62.6 percent to 37.4 percent margin.

The district had hoped to have another referendum in November but decided against that when the economy went south.

Now, a $68 million building referendum is scheduled for April…

The version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives included what seemed a healthy amount for Wisconsin schools — a total of $729.6 million, including $317.2 million for construction.

But the political debate and resulting compromise in the Senate resulted in much of the money for school construction, including maintenance and repair, being slashed from the bill.

“That line item was zeroed out,” said John Forrester, a spokesman for the School Administrators Alliance. So superintendents such as Herdrich in West Bend, initially buoyed by reports that the stimulus bill could offer some help to repair dilapidated buildings, now find themselves wondering again how to house students safely in the face of failing referendums and dwindling state funds.

It should go without saying that the current broken school finance system requires successful referenda for almost all construction, maintenance and remodeling projects.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, education, finance, Local News, Referenda, referendum, School Finance

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