10/22/2010 01:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who's to Blame When we Fail our Students?

Have you heard it lately?

It seems to be all around us.

Arnold Schwarzenegger did it last week, right after he offered to "Pump (us) up!"

David Guggenheim did it in his new documentary Waiting for 'Superman'.

Everyone seems to be doing it.

If you are not sure what I am referring to then let me ask you a question: Why are our nation's schools facilities falling down around our children? Let me ask you -- are you playing the blame game as well?

When we answer the question do we blame of our government, our voters, our school administrators, our teachers, our parents?

When it comes to our failing school buildings, everyone is looking for someone to blame.

It needs to stop.

In the premier episode of the NBC show, School Pride the Governor of California was interviewed and asked how a school like Enterprise Middle School could fall into such disrepair. During the opening credits one student stated that his school, "looked more like a prison than a school where someone would want to come and learn."

Governor Schwarzenegger answered by blaming the unions and went on to list the teachers, parents, and communities before finishing with the government. He admitted that the government had to share in the blame.

But what if it was none of these? What if the culture of neglect is the product of misunderstanding and indifference?

The General Services Administration has long held that;

"An appropriate budget allocation for routine M&R [maintenance and repair] for a substantial inventory of facilities will typically be in the range of 2 to 4 percent of the aggregate current replacement value of those facilities (excluding land and major associated infrastructure)."

This would mean, for example, that for the Detroit Public school system , designed to educate almost 200,000 students in more than 23 million square feet of buildings, the annual M&R budget should be more than $80 million.

But not even 10 percent of this amount was budgeted last year. The FY2010 budget showed tM&R spending limited to just over $5 million.

Why? It's not because the leaders of the Detroit Public School system lacked determination. DPS is wrestling with declining enrollment, aging facilities and the challenges of reversing public perception. Indeed, DPS' Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, brought in two years ago to deal with issues such as these, is a skilled, visionary administrator who is facilitating a remarkable turnaround of Detroit's schools. (Full disclosure: I am working with Mr. Bobb on several school projects in Detroit). So who is to blame?

It is not as if we cannot see the need for improved school facilities. When a neighborhood school starts to decay, it's a visible wound that hurts and demoralizes an entire community. The underlying causes of this disconnect, between obvious need and adequate resources, can be traced back to a fundamental misunderstanding. A school building, any building, is not a static asset. Think of your house or your apartment. The sink in the hall leaks and the front door sticks, and if you don't go pull the weeds out of the garden you will lose that battle forever. Now multiply that time 23 million square feet.

Almost 20 years ago the National Research Council Building Research Board issued a report that is still seen as the benchmark for public facility maintenance budgeting. The report was entitled "Committing to the Cost of Ownership -- Maintenance and Repair of Public Buildings," began with a Chinese proverb:

Dig a well before you are thirsty.

And people think government reports are boring!

Actually, I think that caution today sounds more than a little ominous. It suggests that more often than not we are more than just a little thirsty before we begin to dig the wells of facility maintenance and improvement. Crisis management and stopgap solutions have for too long been the foundation of policy. And this widespread failure creates a backlog of neglect that cannot be overcome with onetime allocations or two year emerency financial managers.

The Building Research Board's report stated that:

The nation's public buildings -- government administration buildings, health care facilities, schools, correctional facilities, and a variety of other elements of public infrastructure -- are assets acquired through the investment of tax dollars over the years and are critical to the nation's high quality of life and productive environment. Public officials -- the stewards of these assets -- must bear responsibility for their effective maintenance. Widespread underfunding of maintenance of public facilities, caused by many factors, can affect public health and safety, reduce the productivity of public employees, and cause long-term financial losses when buildings must be prematurely renewed or replaced.

In other words; we are not only thirsty, but we are going broke.

In no project type is this more apparent that our nation's schools. And perhaps that is because the public does not see the "business" of school districts to be the business of buildings.

In order to properly, efficiently, effectively deliver their mission school districts require facilities focused on that mission. A popular standard among school policymakers is a "Warm, Safe, Dry" classroom. That should be a minimum, but to remain competitive that is not enough.

In 2007, the Idaho Senate approved, with amendments, the House version of Idaho Code 33-1019 in order to "ensure students attend schools in safe facilities."

They required that

school districts set aside two percent of the replacement value of school buildings into a school building maintenance fund each year.

But is that enough?

If our facilities continue to fail our students, how can we ask them to exceed our expectations. The question that we have to ask ourselves is that while we have not met the challenge of our Chinese proverb, do we have the will and the tools to prepare for those that thirst in the future?