January 15, 2007

AFT report sounds alarm on building conditions

Source: NYSUT Health and Safety Newsletter

The AFT recently released a report - "Building Minds, Minding Buildings; Turning Crumbling Schools into Environments for Learning" - derived from interviews with almost 1,000 AFT members from throughout the United States about the condition of their schools.

The results of the online survey - from respondents in urban, suburban and rural districts - do not speak well of school districts or school communities as stewards of the structures which house school employees and the students they serve.

The AFT report refers to several studies that show direct relationships between school conditions and academic achievement, as well as to health outcomes such as asthma and absenteeism. This article summarizes some of the report's findings and recommendations while referencing what's happening in New York state.

The problem: inadequate maintenance and funding

In New York, as in other states, facility operations funding is often the first cut when budgets are tightened. The price paid for this choice is the poor conditions in many schools. Higher education facilities are not immune, either. NYSUT members at community colleges, SUNY, CUNY and private colleges have also suffered from inadequate maintenance of plant facilities.

An example of a continued failure to recognize the role of building conditions in learning is how the state has budgeted monies for minor maintenance and repair in K-12 schools.

In the last two years, the state Education Department has put the monies formally dedicated to minor maintenance and repair into Flex-Aid. Flex-Aid is a consolidation of various budget categories for schools and operates like a block grant. This means that minor maintenance and repair projects compete for dollars with other educational categorical funding, such as summer school aid, educational related support services and extraordinary needs. Districts can choose to spend money inequitably between categories. The New York Association of Superintendents of Buildings and Grounds surveyed its members on the impact this has had on spending for building operations. The results: Most schools in New York have responded by decreasing maintenance budgets, eliminating minor maintenance aid and decreasing staffing and/or increasing square footage without increasing staffing.

As the association and the Healthy Schools Network puts it, Flex-Aid is a "built-in incentive to defer maintenance." It costs money but facilities maintenance produces savings by decreasing equipment replacement costs over time, decreasing renovation costs because fewer large-scale repair jobs are needed and decreasing overhead costs (such as utility bills) because of increased system efficiency.

Schools that do the right thing

Some schools in New York do recognize the important role building conditions have on student and staff performance. The Baldwin school community on Long Island, for example, has consistently supported adequate custodial and maintenance staffing and stated that support in their 2004 $26.9 million bond issue. The bond emphasized repair, replacement and renovations of all buildings. The district soon began to see the benefits of how updating facilities improved the physical plant and academics. Baldwin also switched to third-party certified green cleaning and floor care products years before they had to, under state law. The district has also conducted multi-hazard "speed drills" for several years, where emergency evacuation drills are conducted in real time with local fire and police departments involved to make sure the district has the most effective emergency response for whatever hazard is posed.

Baldwin TA health and safety chairperson Robin Phillips says: "We have a very active joint health and safety committee. Every unit of job titles is represented and the TA has representation from all levels of instruction as well as myself, a vice president of the union. If a staff member has a concern with health and safety, like an unusual smell or mold suspicion, the complaint goes to the appropriate committee representative. The district responds within 24 hours, investigating and resolving the concern."

Good schools and how to get them

The AFT report lists some key elements to good school conditions including:

  • proper siting, including environmental impact considerations;
  • building and classroom sizes conducive to learning;
  • adequate heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems;
  • extensive use of natural daylight;
  • acoustic materials that reduce noise levels that interfere with learning;
  • safety and security concerns adequately addressed;
  • infrastructure that supports special-needs children and adults; and
  • adequate staffing to keep schools cleaned and well-maintained.

On a local level, NYSUT members can support increased funding and fight cuts of facilities budget lines; work to engage the whole school or campus community in facility planning, including participation in design and siting of new or renovated buildings; and demand that commissioning be included in the costs of renovation and construction (see related story below).

The AFT report has several recommendations for actions at the state level, including supporting adequate resources for those agencies that develop guides and provide oversight for building and infrastructure issues and establish effective and enforceable state requirements for routine inspections for environmental and safety hazards, written operations and maintenance plans for every school and campus building, health and safety protective policies during construction and renovations, mold assessment and remediation practices and complaint and investigation procedures.

Nationally, AFT has called for legislation to make billions of dollars in school modernization bonds available; provide money to expand technology and support innovative education programs and to establish a new "leaning environment index" attached to the No Child Left Behind Act to improve environmental conditions and raise student performance; and conduct more research on student health and reliable building science.

As the report states, "... the school environment cannot be separated from the academic agenda." The report is available at www.aft.org/topics/building-conditions/index.htm.