Education Week - February 14, 2018 - 21
Advocates Build Case for Federal School Construction Aid
By Alyson Klein
President Donald Trump wants
Congress to provide substantial
funds to pay for "gleaming new
roads, bridges, highways, railways,
and waterways." Not on the list outlined in his recent State of the Union
Education advocates are hoping to
"We think that's really got to be in
it, and, hopefully, the president knows
that his list was short," said Mary
Filardo, the executive director of the
21st Century School Fund, which
champions school facilities funding.
"Infrastructure isn't just about transportation."
Trump is asking Congress to come
up with a plan that will generate $1.5
trillion in new infrastructure investments.
Getting the federal government to
pony up for new school facilities hasn't
been easy, even in better political circumstances.
Back in 2009, Democrats tried to
get money to build new schools included in the American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act, a nearly $800 billion package intended to jump-start
the sluggish economy.
But moderate Republicans, whose
support was needed to pass the
stimulus bill, balked at adding to the
measure some $16 billion in grants
that districts could use to update
and repair school facilities. The compromise: $24 billion or more in zeroor low-interest bonds that districts
could use for the rehabilitation and
repair of facilities.
Democrats and some middle-ofthe-road Republicans have signaled
they're likely to seek money to construct and refurbish schools again.
Democrats sought to direct some
$100 billion to school construction in
their infrastructure plan, released
last spring. More recently, 25 senators
sent a letter to Trump asking him to
partner with states to improve school
facilities, especially in low-income and
rural communities. The lawmakers
highlighted a 2014 federal study that
said it would take $197 billion to pay
for needed repairs, modernizations,
Impact Aid Needs
It's not clear if Trump and other Republicans will be persuaded. But no one
may be watching the outcome of this debate more closely than school districts
located on or near federal lands.
Impact Aid, which has been around
since the 1950s, helps school districts
make up for revenue lost thanks to a
federal presence, such as a military
base or Native American reservation.
Federal property is not subject to state
and local taxes. The program, which
has broad bipartisan support, is currently receiving about $1.3 billion.
That includes $17.4 million for school
construction, a number that's barely
budged for years, said Jocelyn Bissonnette, the director of government relations for the National Association of
Federally Impacted Schools. (For context, that amount wouldn't even build
one school in many districts.)
Bissonnette is hoping an infrastructure push could mean a federal
investment in school construction for
federally impacted districts.
Though school construction grants
didn't make it into the ARRA, the
legislation did include $100 million for
federally impacted districts. Bissonnette is hoping Congress will single
out Impact Aid districts yet again.
Federally impacted districts are in
a unique situation, she argued. Many
don't have much taxable property, or
a lot of taxpaying residents. "These
school districts are at a unique disadvantage because of the presence of
federal property," Bissonnette said.
Many have "no practical capacity to
issue bonds and raise resources."
And, she said, the need is clear.
Last summer, NAFIS surveyed 218
districts in 37 states and found they
had a collective $4.2 billion in pressing construction needs and $13.2 billion in overall construction needs.
More than a quarter of districts reported facilities that were more than
80 years old, and 65 percent said their
facilities were in either "fair" or "poor"
condition. Problems ranged from leaky
Every school day
in the U.S.
roofs to lead and mold in buildings.
Curt Guaglianone, the superintendent of Mt. Adams School District
#209, which sits on the Yakima Native American reservation in central
Washington, has been trying for
years to replace an 80-year-old elementary school.
The building is "too small, not necessarily safe," and isn't on par with
facilities in nearby districts, he said.
"Everything leaks. Even the bricks
leak. Every year, something goes out
in a building this old."
The student body has outstripped
what the aging facility can handle.
Some students are stuffed into portable classrooms, some of which are 50
or 60 years old themselves. And other
children are currently learning in a
converted bus barn.
The district would need at least
$28 million to build a new school,
but it can't raise much more than a
quarter of that locally because of the
rules governing federally impacted
lands, Guaglianone said. The state
has passed some extra construction
funds for small districts. But it would
"be really nice if the federal government [lent a hand] because we are on
federally impacted lands," he said.
Other districts have taken on
debt to cover construction costs. The
Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified dis-
trict, which sits near tribal land in
northwestern California and serves a
largely low-income, Native American
population, launched a major makeover of its schools beginning in 2014.
Before the overhaul, the facilities
were in "Third World" condition, said
Jon Ray, the superintendent of the
roughly 1,000-student district. The
buildings, first constructed in the
1950s and 1960s, had rot and decay,
peeling lead paint, and asbestos.
Now Klamath-Trinity is about
three-quarters of the way through
its construction plan. Test scores and
attendance have jumped in the madeover classrooms, he said. But it's come
at a cost. State and local money covered roughly 85 percent of the first
phases of the project. With little new
construction money from Impact Aid,
Ray had to borrow to make up the
rest. That's meant annual payments
that have cut into the district's general operating budget.
The district is struggling to pay
for the last round of projects without
making cuts that would affect the
classroom. If Ray borrowed the remainder of the money, "I'll have nice
facilities, but I won't have teachers
to run the classrooms," he said. He's
hoping Congress is able to help. "Everybody has chipped in, except the
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EDUCATION WEEK | February 14, 2018 | www.edweek.org | 21