Keeping Schools in a State of Good Repair

It is my impression that some types of buildings, such as single family houses, are renovated and upgraded every 20 years or so; others only after many decades.  Schools are among the least frequently upgraded building. Many schools wait fifty, sixty or more years between major upgrades, despite ever-changing changes in the needs of students and methods of learning.

Some of this neglect is due to the challenge facing all public infrastructure; most of the need for renewal is hidden from view and politicians are more than willing to postpone raising taxes for repairs.  As a result sewers, water mains, and bridges, along with schools, are let to deteriorate gradually.  (It isn’t only public assets that suffer from delayed repairs; large apartment buildings also have this problem.)

But there are some unique reasons that result in the lack of timely school upgrades:

It is typically not until organized pressure from local school communities is strong enough to overcome these impediments that significant school renewal happens.



Major retrofits of schools often take more than a year to complete.  Even “minor” upgrades to plumbing, heating, roofing, and electrical systems take a long time.  And while this is construction is taking place children as young as 4 years old are in the building throughout the typical working day, 5 days a week, 10 months a year.  As a result these repairs either have to be done:

  • while the students are in class, leading to inefficiencies to reduce the danger to students
  • during the evening and weekends, reducing the hours available to do the work and requiring overtime pay, or
  • during the time when the school is closed for the summer, limiting the scope of the work that can be done, and placing pressure on the limited supply of skilled trades.

All of this increases the cost of construction and the complexity of the logistics involved.

(The other option is to move the students to another school during the construction.  This almost always involves bussing, sometimes for up to an hour, to a school with excess space.  It also disrupts the social connections and non-academic activities that are so important to a child’s learning and well-being.)                                                                  ……. back to top  ^



At any given time about 80% of taxpayers see the inside of a school.  The other 20% are typically either parents or school staff.  Many of the 80% never even pass by a school, or if they do don’t really notice it.

As a result, the demand to spend money to keep schools in a state of excellent repair is typically a low priority.  (A pothole on street with even modest traffic gets more public attention than a toilet not working in a school or inadequate fresh air in classrooms.)

An even lower priority is renewing a school to meet changing educational needs.  Most schools were designed for the teacher at the front of the room lecturing to students sitting in desks arranged in neat rows.  But it is clear that more flexible space is needed to maximize learning.

When I was in school, I had only three sources of information: the teacher, the limited number of books in the library, and the 24-volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica that my parents had bought from a door-to-door salesman.  I hardly ever knew anything that my teacher didn’t know.

No longer.

Today any student, thanks to 2 Billion websites, can know things that the teacher never even thought about.  Lecturing has given way, must give way, to coaching and guiding, working in groups, exploring and inventing.  Classrooms and schools designed in the age of Leave It to Beaver don’t meet this type of learning                                                      .……. back to top  ^



Even when the need for school renewal is embraced, the natural reaction of a parent is to say: “Wait until my child graduates”.  This is particularly true of parents whose child has only two or three years left in the school, and the child will suffer all of the inconvenience but gain none of the benefit of the renewal. In this situation who wouldn’t want to put delayed for a couple of years.

This NIMKY syndrome makes even the most determined decision-maker wary.  Parents vent their frustration and anxiety through protests, petitions, and public town hall meetings.  The emotions generated by NIMKY often overwhelm the arguments of those advocating the construction – particularly when the repairs can reasonably be put off for a couple of years.                                                                                                                            ……. back to top  ^