Earth Shattering Groundbreakings

10/29/2010 04:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ed Schmidt AIA Architect and Executive Director, Fanning Howey

This week, the Detroit Public Schools Construction Project held a groundbreaking for a new high school. The new Finney Crockett High School is a modern facility, scheduled to open in the summer of 2012, that will consolidate two academic programs in new, state-of-the-art facilities, allowing for the closing of two deteriorating, antiquated, inefficient buildings.

At the event, the class of 2013, who will be the first to graduate from the new facility, released green and purple balloons as the officials let the dirt fly. The marching bands played, the two step teams performed and city officials celebrated the fact that this was the 18th such event in the past year.

It's gratifying to see what can happen when a community coalesces around the goal of rebuilding and renovating urban schools. As I said in my blog post here last week, the will to transform failing schools is essential to make the most out of every dollar spent. It's a two-way investment into communities, and communities put their vision and oversight into how those budgets are applied.

Detroit is one of the most striking examples in the nation of this community involvement and municipal/federal partnership. These are challenging times for all American cities, and for years, the city of Detroit has struggled even more than most other urban areas. When it came time to decide how the city would spend the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds that they were allocated at the end of 2009, it was important to choose programs that would have a lasting legacy.

The ARRA program allocated a certain amount of Qualified School Construction Bonds (QSCB) to states and school districts across the country. A budget of $4.4 billion was set aside for 100 large Local Educational Agencies in amounts ranging from $10.1 million for Garland Independent School District in Texas to $699.8 million for the New York City system.

Last November, Detroit voters approved the Proposal S Bond Referendum which enabled the district to access $500.5 million in federal stimulus dollars for school capital improvement projects. DPS received the sixth largest allocation in the nation. Federal regulations stipulate the bond dollars must be spent within three years, and the urban landscape of Detroit is today buzzing with school construction activity.

Thanks to similar local/federal partnerships across the country, many cities and states are backing up community will to tackle the most pressing obstacles to successful schools with careful, effective public spending.

The ARRA requirement states "that all available proceeds of QSCBs be spent on construction, rehabilitation, or repair of a public school facility." And the sale of these bonds has been quite the buzz.

In June, for example, Bloomberg reported

Massachusetts, the first state to make school attendance compulsory, sold $151 million of Qualified School Construction Bonds at a yield almost half a percentage point below more popular Build America Bonds.

And in May, CNBC reported

The Big Apple is kicking off a billion-dollar bond sale Tuesday...The bonds, which are rated AAA by Standard & Poor's, include $420 million for Build America Bonds and $250 million for Qualified School Construction Bonds, both of which were created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Up in New Hampshire, $23.6 million was awarded to the Mascenic School District, and on June 18th they celebrated the groundbreaking for the New Ipswich /Greenville Elementary school.

Officials spoke of community participation in the bond election and celebrated the fact that "many of the residents of Greenville and New Ipswich are working here on the site and this is going to help the local economy."

And the list goes on. Google "school groundbreaking 2010" and you'll find countless examples of communities investing their tax dollars in rebuilding schools. Public spending is often controversial, with competing priorities and budget pressures pushing and pulling from all sides.

But when the first shovel hits the ground at a school site, the result of the process begins to take shape; and with every brick the goal draws nearer. That's why communities like Detroit are coming together to support school construction, and why the money spent on rebuilding is considered such a good investment.

The night before the groundbreaking in Detroit, the last of the $500 million bonds were sold as well. The state estimated that the program made possible by the bond issue could be responsible for as many as 10,000 jobs.

What's happening in Detroit is being repeated from coast to coast. You probably don't have to travel very far to see it for yourself: the earth shattering changes to the classroom inventory, earth shattering changes to the local economy, earth shattering changes to local jobs and community participation. All this and more are a possibility beginning with the simple tossing of a little dirt.