The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Borderline criminal’: Many public schools teeter on the edge of decrepitude

Binford Middle School in Richmond is among the campuses needing repairs, a tab that could reach $800 million citywide. (Debbie Truong/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Each morning for several years, Keri Treadway switched the classroom lights on and stomped loudly to frighten away the mice. She checked the sticky traps. She swabbed tables with disinfectant wipes and cleared droppings from the colorful rug where her kindergarten students sat.

After the school day ended, Treadway rested her legs on a chair to avoid the scurrying rodents. The routine at William Fox Elementary School persisted until the 108-year-old brick building in the city’s vibrant Fan neighborhood was visited by exterminators last year.

Treadway isn’t familiar with much else. She has taught for 16 years in Richmond Public Schools, learning to adapt to deteriorating buildings. But she pauses when she hears from friends who teach elsewhere, in schools that are not rundown.

“You’re like, ‘Wait a minute, clearing up mouse droppings — that’s part of my daily routine,’ ” she said.

There are other routines teachers and students have ritualized to cope with building conditions in the 24,760-student school system.

They dress in layers, bundling up in heavy winter coats and scarves when classrooms become frigid, or peeling off sweaters when rooms are sweltering. They find ways to work around leaky roofs and falling ceiling tiles and mold, windows that don’t open and restrooms without stall doors.

In a booming state, public schools grapple with asbestos, leaks and four-day weeks

The experience is familiar to schoolchildren in financially struggling districts throughout the country from Baltimore to Detroit to rural Colorado who are forced to contend with failing boilers and vermin.

Substandard conditions can compromise students’ attendance and performance, leading to absenteeism and lower achievement, studies show. Parents, students and teachers in some states have sued over neglected school buildings and inadequate resources, arguing, with mixed results, that poor conditions undermine students’ ability to receive a public education.

Some relief could come from the federal level: Congress is considering a plan to invest $100 billion over a decade to rebuild public schools.

The investment is badly needed in broad swaths of the country. A 2014 federal study found that 53 percent of schools needed repairs, renovations or updates and that $197 billion was needed to bring schools to “good overall condition.” Other projections peg construction costs even higher, with the National Council on School Facilities estimating that public school buildings are in need of $542 billion in upkeep.

The problem has forced some communities to seek creative solutions. Officials in Maryland’s Prince George’s County plan to use public-private partnerships to build and maintain several public schools in hopes of hastening construction and paring down an estimated $8.5 billion maintenance and construction backlog.

In Virginia, the issue has resonated across geographic and political lines, unifying urban and rural school systems that have struggled to raise enough local dollars to compensate for what they describe as inadequate state support. But measures to infuse state coffers with money for school repairs failed to clear the General Assembly this year.

In Richmond, the city has reached its debt ceiling, meaning it cannot borrow money to pay for school construction, said Superintendent Jason Kamras. It would cost $800 million to pay for all the construction needed in Richmond’s public schools, according to the city.

The district approved $150 million in school construction spending last year, most of which was earmarked to replace three schools.

But it could be decades before all 44 public schools in the city are rehabilitated or rebuilt, meaning at least another generation of students will sit in buildings that Kamras condemned as “borderline criminal.”

“Our schools should convey the notion that we, the adults, love our kids when they walk into them,” said Kamras, who built his career in D.C. Public Schools. “And our schools convey the notion that, at best, we are indifferent and, at worst, we don’t care.”

'Inhumane conditions'

Lux Aghomo recalled hovering over her science midterm exam in the top floor of Richmond Community High in January, keeping warm with a puffy green winter jacket. Her fingers were cold as she moved a pencil down the page.

‘Kids are freezing’: Amid bitter cold, Baltimore schools, students struggle

The heating problem was eventually fixed, Aghomo said, but her story wasn’t exceptional: Other students and teachers in Richmond said faulty heating and cooling systems produce temperature extremes that make it difficult to focus and, in some cases, have caused or inflamed health problems.

“Students are forced to do work even in conditions where they can’t really think or function as well as they could,” Aghomo said. “It makes me feel like my education isn’t valued as much as people from other counties and other schools.”

At Binford Middle School, a long, commanding building that sits among rowhouses, the tall windows to Sarah Pedersen’s first-floor classroom are sealed shut. Temperatures have risen to 95 degrees when the boiler runs too hot, she said, prompting her to turn on the air conditioner.

But the unit is so loud that she can run it only a few minutes before students complain of headaches and discomfort.

“It’s inhumane. These are inhumane conditions,” said Pedersen, who noted that she hasn’t had problems with her heating in recent months.

Classroom temperature, noise and cleanliness can have significant consequences for students’ well-being, said Lorraine E. Maxwell, an environmental psychologist and associate professor at Cornell University.

Learning is affected not just by personal characteristics such as ethnicity, family income and individual potential, but also by “the multiple ways in which the school communicates that learning and achievement is possible and important,” Maxwell wrote in a 2016 study of New York public schools.

Building conditions contribute to lower test scores, she said, even after considering other factors such as income. They also affect how students see themselves.

“Students, especially middle and high school, can understand that the building is saying something about . . . how their education is valued,” Maxwell said.

Building conditions also speak to issues of equity, Richmond educators say: Students in the city school system are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, and 66 percent are economically disadvantaged.

White flight to the suburbs depreciated tax bases in Richmond and other cities in the late 20th century, often meaning fewer dollars were available to public schools, said Julian Maxwell Hayter, an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. The ubiquity of neighborhood schools also meant Richmond had to deal with highly concentrated poverty at some campuses.

“I’ve looked at city budgets from the 1980s and the 1990s, and it’s not as if Richmond wasn’t trying to pump money into the city school system,” Hayter said. “It’s just that they didn’t have it.”

The consequences persist — at Hayter’s daughter’s elementary school, parents have volunteered to beautify the campus, including playground cleanups and grounds­keeping.

“I’ve used weed whackers at my daughter’s school,” he said.

Virginia, like most states, made dramatic spending cuts during the Great Recession that left virtually no area of school life — teacher pay, class sizes, facilities — unscathed.

Since the 2008-2009 school year, state aid per student has dropped 8 percent when adjusted for inflation, said Chris Duncombe, a policy director for the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a left-leaning Richmond think tank.

School systems are forced to shuffle local dollars to keep employees, siphoning money available for construction projects. And communities with more robust tax bases can generally afford to contribute more local dollars for schools and often do, aggravating inequities.

Aghomo, a 10th-grader who aspires to study public policy in college, said classroom surroundings — chairs that fall apart, paint that chips, scant or outdated technology — affect her morale.

“We’re asked to compete nationally or statewide when we don’t have the resources other schools have,” Aghomo said. “If we’re forever trying to catch up, then there’s really no use.”

Far-reaching problem

In a Northern Virginia elementary school cafeteria one November night, the chief operating officer for Alexandria City Public Schools stood in front of raucous parents fed up over mold and a leaky roof.

Mold, leaky roof at Alexandria school reaches ‘crisis point,’ parents say

Rain damage had shuttered the auditorium earlier in the school year, and a month later, health department officials had warned that mold at Mount Vernon Community School could ignite respiratory problems in students with asthma or weakened immune systems.

Mignon Anthony, the school system’s chief operating officer, told parents the district was doing all it could.

“I’ve got 17 buildings in this city that all have mold, asbestos and lead in them,” she told the parents. “And I’m going to do everything we can to make sure people aren’t breathing it in and that the children are safe.”

Similar problems have flared across the state.

In rural Lee County, at the southernmost tip of Virginia, students have been rerouted through hallways and moved out of classrooms during heavy rains that send water gushing through leaky roofs. Plastic trash bins and buckets collect the rainwater.

In Bristol, an economically distressed city that hugs the Tennessee border, humidifiers and air scrubbers manage air quality in some classrooms.

When ‘the heartbeat’ stops: Rural schools close as opportunity and residents flee

Concerns over school building conditions are long-standing. Former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) ordered a building inventory of Virginia’s public schools. The state determined in 2013 that more than 60 percent of schools were at least 40 years old and that it would cost more than $18 billion to complete renovations for Virginia schools more than 30 years old.

Estimates elsewhere in the country are similarly staggering.

The city of Baltimore has a $3 billion maintenance backlog. Hawaii officials reported $868 million in needed repairs. A report last year found the cost of repairing problems in Detroit schools had ballooned to more than $500 million.

'A state funding issue'

Last year, the Richmond City Council imposed a 1.5-percentage-point increase in the meals tax to pay for $150 million in school construction. Mayor Levar Stoney laid out an $800 million plan to fully fund school construction over two decades, after voters resoundingly approved a ballot measure that required him to do so or admit it can’t be done.

Despite broad consensus in Richmond and other cash-strapped Virginia school systems that classroom conditions are a problem, most of the dollars needed to fund construction have not materialized.

The state budget includes $35 million in new money for school construction, less than half of the $80 million initially proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

A bipartisan panel of Virginia lawmakers examined school modernization, developing a slate of proposals. One measure, which encourages schools to design buildings powered by renewable energy and allows them to sell excess energy, was signed into law by Northam.

Two other measures did not survive scrutiny — one that would have dedicated money to repairing school roofs and another that would have asked voters whether they wanted the state to issue $3 billion in bonds for school construction.

Educators and school administrators insist the state must shoulder more.

Victoria Pierson, a second-year teacher at Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School in Richmond, said unpredictable heating and cooling, exposed wiring and cockroaches undermine gains students have made in reading and attendance. Her school is one of three Richmond campuses scheduled for replacement.

“Teachers aren’t speaking out to put shame on our school buildings or to put shame on their school districts,” Pierson said. “This is a state funding issue. Our legislators are telling us constantly, over and over again, that we don’t value public education because they’re not passing budgets that reflect that.”

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