LEAs struggle to fulfill new facilities mandates
(Calif.) With the upkeep of school buildings traditionally a key focus of state financing, districts across California are struggling under the new funding formula not only with finding money for needed repairs but also with meeting a maintenance standard that is not clearly defined.
In the past, the state provided some funding specifically earmarked for facility maintenance and repair. Under Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula that money has been absorbed into one big pool to be distributed among districts, which are finding it increasingly difficult to cover everything required by the state – including keeping facilities “in good repair.”
Districts face a deadline at the end of June for adopting their Local Control Accountability Plans –reports to the public detailing how they will use the funds to meet a list of eight state priorities in the LCFF, including the needs of educationally disadvantaged students and maintaining adequate facilities – a directive that may sound simple enough to follow but may need to be further refined by state regulators or the Legislature.
“The question is ‘How is good repair defined? What is good repair for the purposes of meeting LCAP’s requirements?’,” said Ian Padilla, legislative analyst for CASH – the Coalition for Adequate School Housing. “Long story short there really isn’t any kind of a statewide or a local standard for that; it’s really a local decision at this point.”
However, said Padilla, CASH and California school facilities officials can reference as a starting point a state tool known as the Facilities Inspection Tool, or FIT. The index was created as part of the settlement of a 2000 class action suit – commonly known as Williams – that required schools, among other things, to provide students access to to safe and decent facilities.
FIT, said Padilla, offers “very basic” standards for acceptable school building conditions – such as clean, functioning restrooms, pest abatement, working fire alarms and heating and air circulation systems.
But the intent of the Legislature, Padilla believes, is that under the LCFF districts would do more than the bare minimum when it comes to providing a good learning environment for their students.
“Once piece in particular here is to include not just cleanliness and the basic levels of maintenance but also educational adequacy,” he said. “In addition to the very basic FIT assessments, districts should be looking to build capacity to make sure that school facilities are part of the education process – you know, teaching and learning.”
One example of that, he noted, is providing the infrastructure for the additional bandwidth needed to effectively use technology as a learning tool. With the switch to Common Core standards and new aligned assessments, many districts have already expanded their capacity and many others will likely need to.
On the other hand, however, many of these same districts are still reeling from years of funding cuts and a backlog of maintenance issues. While the governor’s LCFF intends to boost education funding by billions of dollars over the next eight years, school budgets have yet to reach the pre-recession levels of 2007.
And, in the years since, districts have had complete flexibility with previously restricted monies – including funds for deferred maintenance – in order to cover losses to the state.
In fact, the Legislative Analyst’s Office in 2012 estimated that as many as 50 percent of the state’s districts used deferred maintenance funding to close budget gaps and meet basic educational needs, leaving many repair problems to worsen and new ones to pile up.
Now the deferred maintenance fund, along with the monies from a very long list of other categorical programs, have been rolled into one pot to be distributed under terms of the LCFF, which also gives districts greater authority over how to spend it.
“Districts are really starting from a hole,” said Padilla, “And the reality is maintenance is the first cut and the last to be restored.”
Schools could see some additional financial help for facilities from Proposition 39, a tax initiative passed last November to provide money for energy efficient school building upgrades. Replacing HVAC systems and roofing – among the top needs of many districts – is allowed under the measure.
Gov. Brown has also proposed in his 2014-15 budget to add $188 million to the state’s Emergency Repair Fund – also mandated under the Williams settlement. This money can be accessed by districts with severe facilities needs that pose a safety threat to students and employees.