The quest for quality is something everyone strives for-both on a personal and professional level. But in some cases, achieving quality is made more difficult due to outside influences that impact inside operations. For school administrators, the primary culprits often are a dwindling or static budget that increasingly is insufficient to handle growing program demands; economic influences; and aging, inefficient facilities that quickly erode available resources.
In Olathe District Schools, Kan., rapid growth also is a growing dilemma that is stretching thin available dollars. "We are growing at a rate of 500 to 1,000 kids a year, which is equivalent to about one new school a year," says Bob Hull, assistant superintendent of operations for the 20,000-student district.
In addition, Hull finds that, like in other districts, federal and state unfunded mandates and budget increases that have not kept up with inflation have challenged his district in its attempt to provide quality learning environments.
"This has put more of a squeeze to provide the same services in a growing school district with traditionally less money to operate," says Hull.
The recent state-mandated class-size-reduction program initiated in Alabama is among the budget and facility challenges impacting Mountain Brook City Schools, Birmingham.
"The state is mandating K-3 class sizes of 18, but is providing no funding to achieve it. Currently, we are at a ratio of 20 to 21 [students] per teacher, and at the lower grades we use a lot of aids," says Ken Key, facilities director for the 3,900-student district. "In addition, our new governor has a drive on to eliminate portable classrooms. So, out of the recent bond issue that was passed [prior to the governor's election], he has taken the liberty to make sure that all portable buildings are funded before anything else gets built or repaired. And in the state, some of the portable buildings are in much better shape than the permanent buildings."
A decision last month by the U.S. Supreme Court mandating that schools must pay to have individual nurses onsite to care for students qualified under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is expected to further strain district budgets. Industry experts say the estimated added costs to the nation's schools would be more than $500 million.
The perception factor
Facility conditions can have a major impact on the perception of quality. Patrick F. Quinn, executive director of plant planning and maintenance of the 46,000-student St. Paul Public Schools, Minn., has identified three primary facilities challenges faced by his district. The first is a general need for space.
"We are running at capacity at all levels of our schools right now. The secondary schools are very worrisome for us. We are solving elementary space problems to a degree with some construction, but at the secondary level we need the equivalent of another high school," says Quinn.
The second challenge involves the need for more small areas. According to Quinn, the state has special funding available that uses poverty as an indicator of student need. What this has done is give schools the ability to develop small, intensive tutoring and reading programs, as well as other programs for children.
"This has brought with it a tremendous demand for small spaces at a time when the school is otherwise full," he says. "A very sad joke here is that all of the good closets are taken-and it is absolutely true."
Quinn identifies increased building use by the community as the third major facilities concern.
"While we have welcomed the greater community into our buildings, increased use has put a real strain on maintenance and operations of our schools."
Charles L. Cohen, assistant superintendent for business services, Aptakisic-Tripp School District No. 102, Buffalo Grove, Ill., also finds increased use of facilities and the growing difficulty of trying to keep buildings maintained in a tax-cap environment particularly challenging.
"Our schools are used continuously 12 months a year," says Cohen. "In the past, we had the summer months to deep clean. Now we have to be extra creative in our staffing and [maintenance] procedures."
Funding equity is a dilemma in many states, which has forced a number of districts that receive less financial support to continually cut back spending, and curtail needed services and programs. In fact, local school funding has been challenged in 35 states and declared illegal in 18. In Pennsylvania, a number of districts have taken their case to court in an attempt to recapture their fair share of state funding. The School District of Lancaster, Pa., for example, has sued the state along with some 200 other school districts regarding inequities in funding. The case currently is being appealed to the state's highest court.
"Currently, we operate spending as much as 10-percent below neighboring districts on a per pupil basis," says Robert Schoch, business manager for the 11,500-student urban district, which has a number of its 20 buildings dating back to the turn of the century.
In an attempt to address school funding, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed the Taxpayers Local Control Act late last year. The Act (which does not include the massive Philadelphia school system) allows districts to levy an income tax to offset cuts in property taxes. While a number of districts are investigating the proposal's potential impact on revenue, so far none of the state's approximately 500 eligible systems have taken advantage of it. One of the major reasons why schools are being overly cautious is that the law is confusing and unclear, according to many administrators.
"The tax control act offers an ineffective combination of options and would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement for many districts," says Schoch. "It allows [districts] to switch from property to local income tax. But the entire increase must be taken out of the property tax. It is an insignificant shift. Growth in our earned income tax and property tax is flat. Furthermore, being an urban district with an already weakened local tax base, we are more vulnerable to a recession based on job conditions."