published Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Hamilton County school needs mount

Workers repair Central High School's roof on Nov. 16 after heavy rain caused massive damage throughout  the school.
Workers repair Central High School's roof on Nov. 16 after heavy rain caused massive damage throughout the school.
Photo by Allison Love.

Central High School waited at least eight years for something to happen. Then the roof gave in. And that's what it took for the school's failing roof to be replaced finally.

While growth and new construction of Hamilton County schools continue to draw attention and hundreds of millions of tax dollars, problems like Central's roof often are neglected until they get so bad there's no ignoring them.

The school board approved an emergency expenditure of nearly $800,000 days after the roof failed in September and caused classes to be canceled. But its sorry state was no surprise to anyone at the high school or at the central office.

Records show the project had been on a capital maintenance to-do list since at least 2004.

But it's just one small project in a catalog of needed capital improvements that now exceeds $200 million.

At least that's what education officials think.

They aren't entirely sure because no comprehensive inventory of school building problems has been undertaken since 2004.

Officials hope to do another exhaustive study within a year.

But one thing is certain: With new maintenance problems popping up continually and only $2.5 million devoted each year to addressing them as well as the needs already on the list, it's a growing problem for the school system.

And it gets more costly by the day.

How it got this way

For years, the county set aside no money for capital maintenance, leaving the system ill-equipped to invest in maintaining its aging schools.

A $4 million capital maintenance budget was added in 1999, but that money since has been slashed in the face of tight budgets.

Capital maintenance is an easy target, especially when administrators look to protect the classroom. New roofs and HVAC units often lose when it's a choice between that and books and teachers.

The capital budget has remained at $2.5 million for the last two years. That's not even enough to tackle this year's $6.2 million replacement of Brainerd High School's 52-year-old heating and air system. Even with a $1.3 million state grant, the school system will use money from three years' worth of capital funds to complete the project.

Meanwhile, the 2004 list of capital maintenance needs has become woefully out of date.

The list leaves off scores of items that have arisen since then. And it includes schools that have been long closed as well as some projects that have been completed.

The six-month study in 2004 required untold amounts of man-hours as a volunteer team inventoried problems by examining every room in every school.

"Our elected officials desperately want to have current knowledge," said Gary Waters, assistant superintendent of auxiliary services for Hamilton County Schools.

"But if you're already so far in the hole that you're not ever going to get your head above it, will it do any good to take this thing back and see that it grows a million dollars? We can't keep up with it today."

Upkeep

The district's maintenance department deploys three "sweep teams," which rotate among the county's 80 schools, spending two to six days in each. The full-time crews tackle smaller items like replacing hard-to-reach light bulbs, fixing broken doorknobs and correcting leaky sinks.

Typically they are able to get to each school only once or twice a year.

And they are unable to touch the more severe problems that plague many old school buildings, like outdated roofs, inefficient windows and HVAC systems well past their prime.

The school system must keep 7.4 million square feet of school space functioning. That's larger than all the terminal space at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and more than seven times the space in Hamilton Place mall.

Even after the county spent $170 million in new schools over the last five years, the average school building is 44 years old. Several schools are almost or past 80 years old. Falling Water Elementary just celebrated its 100th birthday.

"The needs are just phenomenal," Waters said. "A lot of them [school buildings] just reach the end of their life."

Waters' staff of 12 sweep team members and 82 tradesmen eat up a large chunk of his annual $6.2 million maintenance budget, which is separate from the capital maintenance budget.

About $5 million of the maintenance budget goes toward fixed costs like salaries, benefits, vehicles and gasoline. That leaves only about $1.3 million for materials annually.

"And the material costs go up so much that your dollars don't go as far as they used to," Waters said.

School board Chairman Mike Evatt, a retired schools maintenance worker and current home builder, compared the district's situation to home ownership.

It's likely most homeowners would remodel or at least replace paint, flooring and finishes at least every 20 years, he said. But the school system has some buildings and systems that have had gone decades without updating.

"We could use $15 million a year easily on an annual recurring basis and keep these projects going all the time," Evatt said.

During the 2004 facilities study, Evatt said, a private developer told school officials that he generally committed $2 to $3 per square foot of space to annual maintenance costs. At the time, the school system had only about 53 cents per square foot.

The lack of funding has put the maintenance staff so far behind that most jobs are now reactive, rather than proactive, Evatt said.

"We expect Gary and his staff to perform a miracle every day," he said.

And cosmetic updates are nearly impossible with all the structural and mechanical needs mounting.

"We're going to keep the doors open, keep the air conditioning going and keep the heat on," Evatt said. "That's basically it."

Costs add up

When building problems are put off, the costs just keep piling up. Like in health care, the price of treatment often far outpaces the cost of prevention.

At Central High, the leaking roof caused pieces of the ceiling to sag and fall. Some computers and books were ruined. Carpets were soaked, and rooms started to smell from the moisture. Some parents even complained to the school board that the conditions were making their children sick.

Central's parent involvement coordinator, Christina Thongnopnua, said school system administrators likely wouldn't tolerate such conditions for their own offices.

"They would call it a hostile working environment," she said. "Why is it any different for the kids?"

She said Central students have grown accustomed to the leaky roof. By now, they know where to move their desks and where to place trash cans to catch drips.

"It's a sense of a losing battle for some of the kids," said Thongnopnua, who volunteers at least once a week at Central.

A California native, Thongnopnua said she's shocked by the conditions she has seen in several Hamilton County school buildings she has visited. And she wants more parents to speak up about their kids' learning environments.

She said items like leaky roofs and faulty plumbing should be addressed before the school board starts any new school construction.

"While they're building these new schools, the other schools are just falling apart," Thongnopnua said.

Balancing needs

The school system's facility needs, present and future, are growing.

School officials say they need to keep building new schools to keep up with growth, while at the same time invest in the buildings they already have.

The school board recently targeted the county's east side for new schools to help handle the area's population boom. But some say such growth shouldn't further delay current maintenance needs.

"If you can't take care of what you've got, why build new schools?" said Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry.

The commission funds the school system. And the chairman says that body has allocated enough money. How the school board members spend it is up to them.

"I think we've done our part on the commission side," Henry said. "I think the school system really needs to allocate more of its funds to maintenance."

But growth in the East Hamilton and Ooltewah areas was overwhelming, Evatt said, and schools there didn't have the capacity for new students.

"People are moving to this side of the county, and we've got to have somewhere to put these kids," he said.

Evatt said the commission requests that the school board submit a balanced budget. So instead of laying off teachers or closing schools, the board has cut its capital improvement fund to make ends meet.

Normal Park Museum Magnet School Principal Jill Levine can relate to the budget tug of war.

The school raises hundreds of thousands of dollars annually through fundraisers and private donations, allowing Levine to pay for some capital improvements that the district hasn't gotten to. But the school's 2-decades-old campuses still have a slew of problems.

Some windows have lead and asbestos in them, so not even her faithful volunteers can repaint or remove them because of health concerns, she said. Some window air conditioners are too loud to use while teaching, but classrooms get too warm without them in August.

Last year, the upper school hosted a district basketball tournament. But the gym isn't handicapped-accessible, and some wheelchair-using parents from other schools couldn't attend the games.

Still, if the district suddenly were to find a few million dollars, Levine said she would rather invest in programming like reading interventionists than physical upgrades.

"We want clean and safe schools that operate well and aren't freezing cold or burning hot," she said. "But we want great teachers and programs, too."

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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