Milton Nagel stands in the atrium of the new building that opens this fall in Caroline County. Photo credit: Glenn Cook
Milton Nagel ended his 29-year education career on a high note. Before retiring from Maryland’s Caroline County Public Schools at the end of June, Nagel oversaw the construction of the district’s first new school in more than 40 years.
“We’ve had 10 schools for my entire career here,” says Nagel, assistant superintendent for administrative services for the 5,800-student rural district. “We’ve had no new schools since the mid-1970s, and we’ve had to renovate or add on to nearly every building in the county, so this is huge for us.”
School districts across the U.S. face similar issues to Caroline County: aging facilities in dire need of serious renovation, modernization, or replacement. The issue is not new, nor are the inequities in facilities that disproportionately affect low-income communities. The problem for many is funding.
Sweeping legislation now in front of Congress could help provide the billions of dollars needed to fix our nation’s school facilities, which are the second-largest source of public infrastructure spending after highways. Unless that legislation passes, the funding responsibility will overwhelmingly remain with local governments, which pay more than 80 percent of the costs through property taxes. A dozen states provide no funding for school facilities, and the federal government now pays just 0.2 percent of the tab.
For this story, ASBJ looked at the challenges faced by three districts as they struggle — or have struggled — to replace or rebuild schools. The biggest challenge, in most cases, is creating buy-in from the community around the issue of equity.
“Inequity is built into the funding formula for schools, which disadvantages cities and counties that are impoverished,” says Quintin Shepherd, who has been a superintendent in three states and now leads Victoria Independent School District in Texas. “In some communities, you see vast inequities based on which side of town folks live on, because it shows up not just in housing but in the condition of your schools.”
Maryland's Caroline County
Caroline County is the only landlocked school district on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, an area known for its farming, fishing, and tourism. While other Eastern Shore communities have become hubs for tourism, agriculture remains the top industry in Caroline.
“It’s a benefit and a detriment,” Nagel says. “We don’t see subdivisions popping up all over the place and urban sprawl. We have seen a very slow but steady growth; some years it’s flat, but at most there’s been a 1 percent increase year over year in enrollment. At the same time, we are one of the poorest jurisdictions in the state and because we’re still agriculture-based, that’s not likely to change.”
Unlike most states, Maryland pays for the majority of new school construction in its 24 districts, with individual counties picking up the rest. All 10 of Caroline’s schools were built during a period from the 1960s through the mid- 1970s, when the state paid all the cost. Since the formula changed to a shared model, low-wealth counties such as Caroline have been at a disadvantage, Nagel says.
“The formula says now that local government should pay for 19 percent of the cost, but that’s only for bricks and mortar,” Nagel says. “All of the upfront consulting services, feasibility studies, architectural and engineering fees are not paid for by the state, so at the end of the day the state says it’s paying 80 percent when the number is actually much closer to 60. The local dollars are a significant haul for a county that has never had to do that for school construction before.”
Now with buildings ranging from 45 to 60 years old, Caroline is faced with a burgeoning facilities crisis even as it replaces its first school since 1975. The county paid $19 million of the $46 million for the new Greensboro Elementary that opens this fall, but commissioners have told Nagel they are “tapped out” and can’t incur more debt.
“We are fortunate because the bones of most of our buildings are good, but the tech center is woefully outdated and needs to be replaced, and we have a middle school and elementary school that also need to be replaced,” Nagel says. “We’ll just have to use Band-Aids to keep holding them together and hope for the best over the next several years.”
Texas' Victoria ISD
In Victoria, a 13,700-student district located 125 miles southwest of Houston, several schools are “on life support and sucking our maintenance budget to the bone,” says board President Mike Mercer. Voters have supported only two bond issues over the past three decades and rejected a $156.8 million referendum in May.
Shepherd, a superintendent for 17 years in districts in Illinois and Iowa, moved to Victoria in 2018, the year after another bond failed and voters blamed it on poor communication. He made a commitment to “radical transparency” and set up six task forces to learn about facility needs.
“This was nothing connected to hopes and dreams,” Shepherd says of the most recent referendum. “The dream is for kids to have a dynamite football stadium or a dynamic fine arts program, but we have a building that is literally falling in on itself and another school with portable buildings that are now entering their fourth decade.”
The latest referendum would have allowed the district to rebuild a 70-year-old former junior high/high school as a STEM magnet and the 83-year-old elementary school with the portable buildings. Both schools are on the south side of the district; most of the growth has been to the north.
“The southern part of the district has been left behind,” Mercer says. “When you look at equity in our facilities, it is blatantly obvious where the money has been spent for the last 30 to 40 years. The schools followed the growth.”
Shepherd, who has been dealing with 24 roof leaks across 15 campuses as well as damages from pipes that burst during a rare winter freeze, calls the district’s needs “critical.” Two wings of the middle school have been abandoned, and the facility does not have the power to run computers.
“It’s not an easy fix. Our problems are multitiered,” Shepherd says. “The critical needs were there on the Friday night when we went to bed, on Saturday for the election, and again on Sunday when we woke up. They’re not going away.”
One option, Shepherd says, is to draw funds from the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriation Act (CRRSA), which allows the district to spend money to improve air quality in its schools.
“You could easily spend $20 million on air quality in our buildings, but as a superintendent that’s gut-wrenching,” he says. “I don’t believe spending money on air conditioning closes learning gaps, but to some degree our hands are tied. The community said no to the bond, and as our infrastructure needs continue to grow, the impact of those needs on student learning grows as well.”
Another bond remains an option, and Mercer and Shepherd say it will happen sooner rather than later. Mercer attributes the May bond’s failure to a host of issues: low turnout, a strong anti-tax faction still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, and voters angry about the 2020 presidential election and the pandemic.
Mercer says he was dismayed by the lack of support from employees and parents. Only 25 percent of the district’s staff turned out for the vote, a likely response to a lack of salary increases for teachers. Less than 10 percent of parents with school-age children voted; the average age of those who did was 75.
Even more disheartening: Voters who spoke of “abandoning the south side and just letting it go,” Mercer notes.
“That was the most heartbreaking part,” he says. “In public service, you just don’t abandon the public.”
Washington's Snoqualmie Valley School District
The 7,000 students who attend Washington’s Snoqualmie Valley School District come from three cities and unincorporated King County east of Seattle. The district, which covers more than 400 square miles from the top of a mountain range to the edge of Redmond (home to Microsoft) has grown by more than 25 percent over the past decade.
Various plans for managing that growth resulted in five bond issues over an eight-year period starting in 2001. All failed at the polls.
“The first three bonds were to add a second high school, and it became a battle between four very distinct areas of the community,” says Carolyn Simpson, who was elected to the school board in 2011. “Everyone wanted the school, especially at the ends of the district, and no one could agree.”
The fourth and fifth referendums proposed to build a new middle school in a planned community that had fueled the district’s growth. A current middle school would have been converted to a ninth-grade campus to alleviate overcrowding at the high school.
“The freshman middle school became an equity issue, and it was very controversial,” Simpson says. “It would limit the ninth-graders and cost them access to the arts, to career and technical education courses, to the things they could have in a comprehensive high school.”
After the fifth consecutive failure, described by Simpson as “an endless loop,” the board decided to “start fresh and look at the art of the possible.” Eventually, the district decided to rebuild its one comprehensive high school located in the middle of the city of Snoqualmie.
“The hurdles in front of us were enormous, but when you look back at the reasons the bonds failed it was because they were dividing the community,” Simpson says. “The high school brings people together from across the area, but it had a labyrinth of add-ons that made no good sense. The buildings had very little natural light and because it sits in a flood plain, it was not safe.”
Developing a plan to accommodate a 2,300-student high school that allowed the district to offer a true 21st century curriculum took some ingenuity. And stilts. The district could not change its footprint because it would divert flood waters into residential areas.
In proposing a $244 million bond for a three-story high school, the board opted to keep the old building running until the new facility was complete. All freshmen would be housed in a single building on campus to accommodate parents who wanted ninth graders to have their separate space. The school was designed to provide easy access for community use, with a state-of-the-art performance space, as well as robust CTE and culinary arts programs that would appeal to the tech sector in the Seattle area.
“Once we started talking about what we could offer our students, you could see people’s eyes light up,” Simpson says. “At the same time, by having one comprehensive high school instead of two, we could provide incredible depth and breadth for our students.”
This fall, students will move into Caroline County’s first new school in more than 40 years. Photo credit: Glenn Cook
On the district’s sixth try in 2015, 62 percent of voters approved the bond. The rebuilt high school opened in the fall of 2019.
“I was in a hurry,” Simpson says. “I’m not a very patient person when it comes to students and learning, but we knew we had to build community consensus and turn small groups of supporters into large groups. And this time, we had a happy ending.”
In Caroline County, Nagel classifies the new school as a short-term victory, but a win nonetheless. He notes that Greensboro Elementary was replaced only because it had “grown beyond where it was reasonable to put an addition on.” The original campus, built in the days of the open school concept, presented safety issues and a lack of individualized classrooms that could accommodate a growing population of English learners (ELs).
Nagel, who retired at the end of June and now works for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, notes the state has a “tremendous backlog” of school construction projects. The state is currently conducting a facility assessment survey to rank its 1,500 K-12 schools from best to worst, and Nagel fears Caroline will not fare well.
“There’s no requirement for municipalities to fund construction maintenance,” he says. “It’s a purely local decision as far as development, and the priority at the local level is always instruction. In more affluent school districts, there’s more money available to spend on facilities, so it’s not a level playing field. I think it will make us look bad locally without folks knowing or caring that things aren’t the same everywhere else, and we’ll get hurt by that.”
In a first for the state, Maryland officials allowed the school’s square footage to be increased to add small classrooms for the ELs. Nagel says the “right sizing” practice has long been accepted for special education, but never for ELs.
“We need to have those students pulled out from regular classes and provided with more intense English instruction, so we gave the state our data on our EL population, and they were receptive to it,” he says. “We’ve been the only school system allowed to do that so far, but it shows they do know there are some unique needs in every system.”