THE BLOG
03/19/2011 12:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why School Architecture Investments Aren't Irresponsible (Part 2)

My recent post about how a city's values can be reflected in an impressive new school building prompted some interesting comments. One in particular grabbed my attention.

A reader wrote,

"The premise that nice buildings make kids learn better is irresponsible and one of the key reasons schools are in such financial distress."

Although, as a school facilities architect, I might like to think otherwise, I know that many people have similar feelings. In these times, when budgets of every kind are being cut to the bone, spending public dollars on "nice buildings" can seem like a luxury we can't afford.

It's like that World War II era slogan, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without!" Only I would argue that when it comes to schools, fixing up old buildings is the best way to get the most use out of them.

It's another example of the dangerous decline in our infrastructure. Like our congested highways, bursting water pipes and corroding bridges, decaying schools are a reminder that our prosperity as a nation is jeopardized by physical neglect.

A 2009 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), called the Report Card for America's Infrastructure, gave a "D" grade to our schools.

The report found,

The nation's schools serve as pillars of local communities and often serve a dual purpose as disaster-relief shelters. As local governments hold the prime responsibility for funding schools, the economic downturn has had a negative impact on rehabilitation, modernization, and security improvements.

School facilities are not currently considered resilient because of decreased funding and increased capacity, the failure of designs to adapt to the ever changing learning environment, and the lack of system redundancy.

In order to achieve continuous assurance of service, future investments should consider life-cycle maintenance, rapid recovery, alternative services, security, and condition and risk assessment.

So, I would suggest to my critic (and by the way, folks, keep those comments coming whether you agree with me or think I'm nuts -- it's all about starting a conversation!) that it's not a question of what's nice, but rather, what's necessary. These buildings are old and the only way to keep them from decaying past the point of usability is to invest in their infrastructure.

Our "information world" is changing so fast that these buildings stand little chance of keeping up unless we work at it. Did you know that the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not even exist in 2004? We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist and using technologies that haven't been invented -- in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet.

Or, as a viral video and Wiki community put it, "Shift Happens."

The race to stay ahead in the information age is as close as the smart phone in our pocket. In 1984 there were 1,000 Internet devices in this country. By 1992, that number rose to 1,000,000, and in 2008, the number was 1,000,000,000.

When a community decides to invest in school infrastructure, through a bond issue, revenue investment or change in political direction, the changes they seek are way more than cosmetic. The conversation I began with my post about the Crested Butte Community School made the point that when a community invests in schools, it is reaffirming the most deeply held values and beliefs.

In 2008 the, Gunnison school district (where Crested Butte is located) was facing deteriorating schools and an economic climate that was not conducive to tax increases, yet they managed to persuade voters to pass a bond which allowed for the repair, renovation, expansion and remodel of several schools in that district.

The community's overriding concern was that the improvements would cost more down the road while in the short-term the impact on students and teachers of deteriorating building conditions could be calamitous.

A similar step was taken in Detroit, when by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin, voters approved a $500 million bond referendum for new facilities and capital improvements in Detroit Public Schools.

Isn't that how public spending is supposed to work? Needs are identified, community support is mobilized, and the machinery of government is put to work -- with the consent of the governed.

But what if the public interest isn't on the government's radar? That's what frequently happened during the long, shameful period of segregation in America. In 1912, a Chicago businessman named Julius Rosenwald gave Booker T. Washington permission to use some of the money he had donated to the Tuskegee Institute to build six small schools in rural Alabama.

The program was such a success that Rosenwald set up the Rosenwald Rural School Building Program, to bring schools to small black communities throughout the South by offering design, planning and seed money assistance as long as they provided a workforce and local funds.

According to a website history maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation,

At the program's conclusion in 1932, it had produced 4,977 new schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings, constructed at a total cost of $28,408,520 to serve 663,615 students in 883 counties of 15 states.

In a passage that echoes our contemporary conversation about the role facilities can play in the total engagement of students in their education, the website goes on to say,

In the early twentieth century, Progressive architects applied new ideas to school design and developed new standards to evaluate school plans. Their concerns included lighting, ventilation, heating, sanitation, instructional needs, and aesthetics -- all intended to create positive, orderly, and healthy environments for learning. Most of these designers and plans focused on urban schools, however. The designers of Rosenwald schools applied the same Progressive principles to country schools, and in so doing made the Rosenwald school building program a major force in rural school design.

As you can see from this presentation, the legacy of the Rosenwald school initiative is to sustain the guiding principle of every endeavor in education: It's all about the kids.

Whether the money comes from private or public sources, the point is that school systems in the U.S. are designed to reflect local, community values, concerns and techniques. As is the case with so many other aspects of the great American melting pot, one size definitely does not fit all.

Sure, there have been funds spent on schools in less distress than buildings a few miles down the road, and the clout of some "haves" can squeeze out the urgent needs of the "have nots."

But when a community's educational mission results in the renovation or construction of "nice buildings" that "make kids learn better" it is in no way "irresponsible."

In fact it may be the one thing that keeps our future generations from almost certain financial distress.