Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Erratic budgets let schools deteriorate

When money was tight, maintenance was an easy trim; now, Cincinnati voters face the result

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] In a worn basement hallway at Fairview School, paint is peeling, floors are cracked and the heavy door to the boiler room is on the left. The area is used for classrooms.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
At Whittier Elementary in Price Hill, first-grade teacher Ewa Hufford knows better than to leave books or tests on window ledges unless she wants them soaked by rain.

In Principal Dominick Ciolino's office, a web of duct tape on the aluminum-frame windows can't block winter winds from whistling through.

On a frigid January morning, the temperature in Joyce Green's second-grade classroom is 80 degrees because the aged heating system can't be controlled.

No one disputes that Cincinnati Public Schools are a collection of crumbling buildings long past their prime.

Whether Cincinnati taxpayers will spend nearly $1 billion to renovate or build new schools is another question.

Aging facilities:
School built in 1876 near end of its life
No home court:
Tiny gym leaves team always the visitors
Inadequate wiring:
Old electrical systems stretched to capacity
Classes in closets:
Cramped quarters, crowded buildings
Asphalt playgrounds:
Wanted: a little grass, more room to play
Lead paint & dust:
Parents worry about lead paint in schools
• Take a 360-degree virtual tour of two CPS classrooms:
High-speed connection
Low-speed connection
Reports by the state on each of Cincinnati Public Schools buildings.
As a vote approaches Tuesday on an unprecedented $480 million bond issue to rebuild schools, voters are wrestling with whether - and how well - schools have been maintained over the years.

An Enquirer analysis of school district records reveals a half-century of inconsistent repairs to fix things like broken heating systems and leaky roofs.

Since 1950, money for maintenance ranged from 3 to 8 percent of any year's total school budget. Cincinnati spent 3.5 percent or less in one-fourth of those years, an amount some experts and a 1996 federal study suggest is insufficient.

Records also show that maintenance spending slowed slightly in the 1960s - even as Baby Boomers swelled school enrollment. Spending dropped, too, in the early 1990s as the district nearly went bankrupt. It rose in the late '90s when the state dramatically increased funding to repair schools and voters approved tax money for maintenance.

Over the years, school board minutes show recurring frustration with deferred repairs and maintenance.

"We have been unable to paint, plaster or renovate facilities even where the need is substantial," board President G. David Schiering said in 1983.

District officials acknowledge that schools have wanted for new roofs and electrical systems throughout the decades.

Cincinnati schools are among the oldest in the state and have been ranked among the worst in the nation. Yet even if Cincinnati's 80 schools had been consistently maintained, school officials say the district still would need millions of dollars in renovations simply because the buildings depend on aging heating systems and can't be wired for modern technology.

It hasn't helped, they add, that voters since 1969 have turned down 11 of 28 tax levies that help fund the maintenance budget.

"The bottom line is this district has had to make some tough decisions, and this community has voted down some levies," Superintendent Alton Frailey says. "That could perhaps be a reason why more was not done."

Voters to decide

What: 4.61-mill 28-year bond issue to raise $480 million.
When: May 6 (polls open 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.).
Why: To build 35 schools and renovate 31 others over the next 10 years for a total cost of $985 million. By project's end, the district will operate 14 fewer buildings than in 2001.
Other funding: $210 million contribution from the state if voters approve a local share; $295 million from existing district revenues.
Cost to a homeowner: An additional $135 on a home valued at $100,000.Buildings to be renovated: North Avondale, Oyler, Sayler Park, Cheviot, Dater Montessori, Gamble, Westwood, Chase, College Hill, Academy of Multilingual Immersion Studies, Roselawn Condon, Woodford, Bloom, Rothenberg, Taft Elementary, Hartwell, Central Fairmount, Hyde Park, Kilgour, Mount Washington, Douglass, Parham, Aiken, Clark, Dater High, Hughes, Jacobs, Taft High, Walnut Hills, Western Hills, Withrow.
Buildings to be rebuilt: Burton, Clifton (for Fairview German program), Rockdale, South Avondale, Carson, Quebec Heights, Roberts, Whittier, Covedale, Midway, Mount Airy, Pleasant Hill, Schwab, Winton Hills, Bond Hill, Losantiville, Pleasant Ridge, Silverton, Hays, Porter, Washington Park, Millvale, Roll Hill, Bramble, Eastern Hills (to house Sands program), Parker, Academy of World Languages, Heinold (to a new Montessori high school), School for Creative and Performing Arts, Woodward, Eastwood (as new Shroder high school)
Buildings to close: Carthage, Shroder, Fairview, Heberle, Hoffman, Kirby Road, Linwood, McKinley, North Fairmount, former Sands in West End, Schiel, Swifton, Vine, Washburn, Windsor, former Winton Place on Winton Road
Buildings to be added: New Windsor/Hoffman school, new military academy, new East End school, new Price Hill school.
Maintenance budget
Cincinnati Public Schools has spent 3 to 8 percent of each year's total budget on building maintenance.
2001-02 $18,900,447
Numbers are actual expenditures for all years except 1974-1992, when the numbers are based on appropriations and supplemental funding.

Source: Cincinnati Public Schools, Enquirer research

Voters will be asked on Tuesday to approve the bond issue to build 35 schools and renovate 31 others. The work would amount to the biggest public works project in Cincinnati history.

About a quarter of the district's 80 schools were built before the end of World War I. McKinley Elementary in the East End, home to nearly 200 students, was built in 1876, the year Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone.

"You can only do so much face-lifting on a building," Frailey says. "They're definitely substandard in terms of heating and cooling, air quality, technology and functioning restrooms. And we do have asbestos and lead abatement that needs to take place."

Experts say unregulated classroom temperatures, exposed lead paint or improper ventilation can lead to health problems ranging from asthma to brain damage. Research by the National Center for Education Statistics also shows a correlation between building conditions and student achievement and behavior.

Yet maintenance problems in Cincinnati are nearly as old as the district itself.

The Enquirer's review of thousands of pages of school board minutes shows that during two world wars, school maintenance was hindered by shortages of workers and materials.

In June 1950, the district tried to catch up. It increased the maintenance and capital budgets "because of the serious extent to which the school system is in arrears in the maintenance and improvement of many of its older school buildings," former Superintendent Claude Courter reported to the board.

About the same time, the district embarked on a flurry of building as the Baby Boom struck. Between 1950 and 1970 building space doubled to 8 million square feet. Enrollment peaked in the late-1960s at nearly 90,000 students before beginning to decline to less than half that today.

Despite the addition of new buildings, maintenance money during most of the '60s fell below the 1959 maintenance budget.

"It's ironic that as they were building those buildings, the maintenance staff got cut in half," Michael Burson, director of facilities, says today. "That was maybe a flawed strategy."

The maintenance staff consisted of 120 people in the early 1960s, he says. Now the maintenance staff, which includes carpenters, electricians and plumbers, is about 60.

Maintenance problems angered parents and teachers at Heberle Elementary nearly two weeks ago after they learned the school would be closed for the rest of the year because a student's blood was found to have elevated levels of lead.

"My son has been sick," says Sylvia Smith, a West End parent whose third-grader attends Heberle. "I'm wondering if this is part of it."

The Cincinnati Department of Health inspected the West End school and found hazardous lead paint, causing the district to move the 500 students and staff to Porter Elementary, also in the West End. Twenty-two more schools are being tested, too.

Some parents and teachers accuse the district of neglect.

"When I was in school (late 1950s and early 1960s), every two years the rooms were painted and the maintenance was done," says Diane Imes, a science teacher at Heberle, who is retiring this year after 35 years.

She says that by the time she became a teacher, she had to paint her own classroom. Three weeks ago, a teacher on her four-person team bought brooms for their group.

"They didn't take care of the maintenance the way they should have," she says.

A painting maintenance program, launched in 1984 to reduce the risk of lead poisoning in Cincinnati Public Schools, was abandoned in the early 1990s because of budget cuts.

Failed levies blamed

Maintenance budgets have suffered because of rising costs of repairs and failed levies to provide funds, school officials say. Critics complain of excessive administrative spending.

"At the time the budget gets tight, maintenance is easy to cut," Burson says.

The failure of seven of nine operating levies in the 1970s strained the maintenance budget. The two that passed were levy renewals, meaning no additional money was provided.

Two successful bond issues did provide $37 million for construction, but little for maintenance.

Maintenance budgets "were cut constantly," says Virginia Griffin, a board member from 1967 to 1999. "We were heartbroken every year. But we were never neglectful. There was just no money."

Money problems continued into the '80s.

In 1983, the district identified $15 million in maintenance needs. But the state that year cut $193 million in aid to schools. The Cincinnati district cut staff, opened school two weeks late, increased the cost of school lunches and consolidated buildings.

Schiering, then school board president, was alarmed. "The result will be a general deterioration of our physical plant and, therefore, a deterioration of the investment which taxpayers have in those facilities, unless we give substantial attention to the need," he said at the time.

A string of levies passed in the 1980s, including a maintenance levy in 1984. The district spent more than $5 million of levy funds on maintenance projects in the first two years.

Still, the district continued to struggle with state funding losses and was devastated in 1990 by failure of a levy that would have raised $30 million a year for five years.

The loss nearly bankrupted the district and forced officials to borrow from the state.

That year a blue ribbon panel of business leaders, educators and city leaders was convened to analyze district operations. In a 1991 report, the Buenger Commission recommended that the district earmark $115 million to improve and maintain facilities.

"Maintenance is shoddy and irregular," the report said. "Repair orders are not tracked, and requests for service can back up more than two years."

Despite the report, voters rejected a $348 million bond issue in 1993 to rehab buildings.

Group fights taxes

Jim Urling, chairman of the anti-tax group Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, has been fighting increased taxes for schools since 2000.

He faults the board for overpaying teachers, who earn an average of $53,960 a year. He also cites payments given to school district officials, such as the $45,000 raise former Superintendent Steven Adamowski received in 2001 and the $120,000 severance package given this month to departing public affairs director Jan Leslie.

"I don't buy it," Urling says. "They have increased spending in areas that suggests it's not just a string of failed levies. I'm not saying there wouldn't be some disrepair and need for reconstruction, but not to this degree."

For teachers, the maintenance problems spell poor classroom conditions for them and their students.

Hughes Center math teacher Julia Wiant says she began covering classroom belongings with tarps in the early 1990s after coming in one day to find pools of water in the halls, on desks and on computer equipment.

"We were pouring water out of the external disc drives," she says.

About 10 computers were ruined, she says.

Wiant's room doesn't leak anymore. She says the roof was fully repaired about a year after the extensive leaks.

"It's a really old building," she says. "You plug one hole and another area will weaken, and it'll leak there. They do a good job with what they have. But right now, there's not enough people, not enough money and old buildings are really hard to maintain."

School officials cite a 1996 U.S. General Accounting Office study that rated Ohio's school building needs among the worst in the nation, and Cincinnati's buildings are among the oldest in the state at 61 years old on average. The national average is 42 years.

State inspectors in 2001 assessed the district's school buildings and found that 70 buildings needed new electrical systems; 69 needed new heating systems; 69 needed new windows; and 40 needed new roofs.

A bond issue to address these needs failed in November.

The state says problems with buildings go beyond maintenance.

Schools in some Cincinnati neighborhoods also face overcrowding. The district now has 129 trailer classrooms and plans to add 10 more.

"Maintenance is not really the issue," says Rick Savors, spokesman for the Ohio School Facilities Commission, the state agency overseeing school con-struction projects. "The buildings aren't designed to handle modern educational techniques."

Karin Starrett, a special-education teacher who works with developmentally handicapped students at Whittier, has carved out a section of the school cafeteria where she teaches small groups.

Amid the banging and clanking of trays, shuffling feet, giggling and shouting of students having lunch, Starrett tries to teach.

"Eighty to 90 percent of the time, their focus is on the noise," she says. "They're looking at doors and listening to sounds."

The noises concern her because her students are already easily distracted because of their disabilities. Whittier has nearly 700 students, while the school capacity is 454.

"They need to be in an environment where it's quiet so they can focus on their work."

While the district plans to operate 14 fewer schools by decade's end, the building project calls for a new school in Price Hill to alleviate overcrowding at schools like Whittier.

State and local officials say maintenance will be ensured when those new schools are built.

The state program requires schools to develop a maintenance program and devote 0.5 mills for maintenance for the next 23 years.


Erratic budgets let schools deteriorate
School built in 1876 near the end of its life
Tiny gym leaves team always the visitors
Old electrical systems stretched to capacity
Cramped quarters, crowded buildings
Wanted: a little grass, more room to play
Parents worry about lead paint in schools
History of inconsistency

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