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Condition of America's Public School Facilities: 1999
NCES: 2000032
June 2000

Condition of Public Schools

The condition of public schools has received a lot of attention from various stakeholders in the educational process, including parents, educators, and policymakers at various levels. This chapter presents information about the condition of America's schools in 1999, including the presence and overall condition of various types of onsite buildings, and the condition of nine different building features (e.g., roofs, plumbing). Information is also provided about the cost to put school buildings into good overall condition, and the sources of estimates for those costs.

Presence and Overall Condition of Onsite Buildings

This study collected information about the overall condition of the original buildings, the attached and/or detached permanent additions, and the temporary buildings 10 on site at the school. Overall condition includes both physical condition and the ability of the building to meet the functional requirements of instructional programs. The rating scale used (see exhibit 1) indicated the amount of maintenance and repair required for that type of building at the school, and included the following categories: excellent, good, adequate, fair, poor, and replace. 11

Virtually all of the approximately 78,300 regular public schools had original buildings, 12 and two thirds of the schools had attached and/or detached permanent additions (Table 1). Temporary buildings were less prevalent, with 39 percent of the schools indicating that they had temporary buildings. The overall condition of the various types of buildings generally was perceived to be positive, with 81 percent of schools reporting their original buildings to be in adequate or better condition, 84 percent of those having permanent additions reporting them to be in adequate or better condition, and 81 percent of those having temporary buildings reporting them to be in adequate or better condition. 13 Permanent additions were somewhat more likely than original or temporary buildings to be in excellent condition, and temporary buildings were somewhat more likely than original buildings and permanent additions to be in adequate condition.

Although a majority of schools reported their original buildings, permanent additions, and temporary buildings to be in adequate or better condition, about a fifth of schools having a particular type of building reported them to be in less than adequate condition (Table 1). That is, 19 percent of schools reported their original buildings to be in less than adequate condition, 16 percent of those having permanent additions reported them as less than adequate, and 19 percent of schools having temporary buildings reported them to be in less than adequate condition. 14 This included 4 to 6 percent reporting buildings in poor condition (defined as consistent substandard performance; see exhibit 1), and 1 to 2 percent reporting that buildings needed to be replaced due to significantly substandard performance or non-operational condition.

The presence and condition of original buildings did not vary significantly by school characteristics 15 (Table 2). The presence of permanent additions varied slightly by region, with schools in the Northeast less likely to have permanent additions than schools in the South or the West (55 percent compared with 71 percent and 69 percent, respectively). Among schools having permanent additions, schools with the highest concentration of poverty (defined here as 70 percent or more of the students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch) were more likely to report that their permanent additions were in less than adequate condition than were schools with 20 to 39 percent or schools with less than 20 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch (30 percent versus 13 percent and 8 percent, respectively).

The presence of temporary buildings showed somewhat more variation by school characteristics (Table 2). Schools in central cities and in urban fringe areas and large towns were more likely to have temporary buildings than were schools in rural areas and small towns (45 percent and 44 percent, respectively, compared with 29 percent). About a fifth of schools in the Northeast and Midwest had temporary buildings, compared with 49 percent in the South and 65 percent in the West. Schools with the lowest minority enrollment were less likely to have temporary buildings than were schools with higher minority enrollment (25 percent compared with 39 to 51 percent). The condition of temporary buildings did not vary significantly by school characteristics. 16

Differences in the presence of temporary buildings may be related to differences in public school enrollment growth. According to a 1999 report by the U.S. Department of Education (1999a), the West and the South led the nation in school enrollment growth, and cities and suburbs both experienced substantial school enrollment growth in the last 10 years. Enrollment growth in the West was particularly notable, increasing 26 percent from 1989 to 1999. During this time period, public school enrollment grew by 16 percent in the South, 14 percent in the Northeast, and 10 percent in the Midwest.

Looking across all the types of onsite buildings, 76 percent of the schools overall reported that all the types of onsite buildings at their school were in adequate or better condition (Table 3). This did not vary significantly by school characteristics (not shown in tables). Approximately 34 million students attended the estimated 59,500 schools that reported all building types in adequate or better condition (Table 3). The remaining 24 percent of schools reported that at least one of their types of onsite buildings was in less than adequate condition. These 18,700 schools enrolled approximately 11 million students.

Approximately 3.5 million of these students attended schools where at least one type of building was in poor condition (defined as consistent substandard performance) or needed to be replaced because it was non-operational or showed significantly substandard performance (not shown in tables). 17

Condition of Building Features

The questionnaire asked for ratings of the condition of nine different building features (e.g., roofs, plumbing) for the school's onsite buildings, using the same scale used to rate building types (see exhibit 1). 18 While the majority of public schools reported that the individual building features at their schools were in adequate or better condition, a sizable minority (ranging from 14 percent to 29 percent) indicated that various individual building features were in less than adequate condition 19 (Table 4). About one in seven schools reported that their framing, floors, and foundations were in less than adequate condition, and about one in six schools reported interior finishes and trim, and electrical lighting to be in less than adequate condition.

Approximately a fifth of schools indicated less than adequate conditions for life safety features, roofs, and electric power, and about a quarter of schools reported less than adequate conditions for plumbing, and for exterior walls, finishes, windows, and doors. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems were reported to be in less than adequate condition at 29 percent of schools.

The condition of various building features showed some variation by school characteristics 20 (Table 4). Schools with the highest concentration of poverty (as defined by the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch) were more likely than schools with the lowest concentration of poverty to report that their roofs were in less than adequate condition (32 percent versus 18 percent). Schools with more than 50 percent minority enrollment were more likely than schools with lower minority enrollment to indicate that their electric power was in less than adequate condition (32 percent compared with 18 percent and 19 percent), and were more likely than schools with 21 to 50 percent minority enrollment to report that their exterior walls, finishes, windows, and doors were in less than adequate condition (29 percent compared with 17 percent). Schools in the West were more likely than schools in the Northeast and Midwest to indicate that their interior finishes and trim and their electric power were in less than adequate condition (25 percent compared with 14 percent and 15 percent, and 32 percent compared with 14 percent and 19 percent, respectively).

Schools in the West were more likely than schools in the Northeast to report that their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems and their life safety features (e.g., sprinklers, fire alarms) were in less than adequate condition (40 percent compared with 22 percent, and 27 percent compared with 11 percent, respectively).

Looking across all of the building features, 50 percent of the schools overall reported that at least one of the nine building features at their school was in less than adequate condition (Table 4). This translates into about 39,500 schools reporting at least one less than adequate building feature (not shown in tables). Schools in central cities were more likely than schools in urban fringe areas and large towns to report at least one building feature as less than adequate (56 percent compared with 44 percent; Table 4). Schools in the West were more likely than schools in the Northeast to report at least one building feature as less than adequate (57 percent compared with 39 percent). Schools with the highest concentration of poverty (defined here as 70 percent or more of the students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch) were more likely to report that at least one building feature was in less than adequate condition than were schools with 20 to 39 percent or schools with less than 20 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch (63 percent versus 45 percent each).

Among the 50 percent of schools with at least one of the nine building features in less than adequate condition, an average of 3.8 building features were reported to be in less than adequate condition (not shown in tables). Figure 1 shows the percentage distribution of the number of building features in less than adequate condition at these schools. About a quarter of these schools reported that one building feature was in less than adequate condition, 16 percent reported two building features in this condition, and 15 percent reported three building features in less than adequate condition. At the other end of the distribution, 7 percent of these schools reported that all nine building features were in less than adequate condition. 21

Costs to Bring Schools Into Good Overall Condition

The questionnaire also asked for an estimate of what would probably be the total cost of all repairs, renovations, and modernizations required to put the school's onsite buildings in good overall condition. 22 Schools that reported on the questionnaire that the condition of any type of building (original building, permanent addition, or temporary building) or any building feature (e.g., roofs, plumbing, electric power) was less than good (i.e., any type of building or building feature was given a rating of adequate, fair, poor, or replace) provided information about the cost of the needed repairs, renovations, and modernizations. 23

Overall, 76 percent of schools indicated in 1999 that they would need to spend some money on repairs, renovations, or modernizations to bring the school into good overall condition (Table 5). This translates into approximately 59,400 schools needing to spend money on repairs, renovations, or modernizations to put the school into good overall condition (not shown in tables). Schools located in central cities were more likely to need to spend money than were schools in urban fringe areas or large towns (81 percent compared with 70 percent; Table 5). Schools in the West were more likely to report the need to spend money than were schools in the South or in the Northeast (83 percent compared with 73 and 70 percent, respectively).

For schools that indicated the need to spend money to bring the school into good overall condition, the total amount needed by all schools was estimated to be approximately $127 billion (not shown in tables). The average dollar amount for schools needing to spend money was about $2.2 million per school (not shown in tables). 24

The average cost per student of repairs, renovations, and modernizations to put schools into good overall condition also is shown in Table 5. The average cost per student across all public schools, including those that did not need to spend money to put the school into good overall condition, was $2,900. Among the 76 percent of schools that reported needing to spend money to put the school into good overall condition, the average cost per student was $3,800. Apparent differences in cost per student by school characteristics were not statistically significant. 25

Sources of Cost Estimates

The questionnaire also asked for the sources of the cost estimates for the needed repairs, renovations, and modernizations. Respondents could indicate more than one source for their cost estimate. 26 Among the 76 percent of schools that reported needing to spend money, 59 percent reported that the estimate was at least partially based upon the best professional judgment of the respondent, 42 percent indicated that the estimate was at least partially based upon a capital improvement or facilities master plan, schedule, or budget, and 39 percent indicated that the estimate was at least partially based upon facilities assessments or inspections performed by a licensed professional in the past 3 years (Table 6). Approximately one-quarter of the schools (27 percent) indicated that the estimate was at least partially based on repair, renovation, or modernization work currently under way or under contract. Finally, 16 percent of respondents indicated that the estimated cost was at least partially based upon the opinions of other school district administrators, and 4 percent indicated other sources of the estimates.

The sources of the cost estimates were also examined by whether the cost estimate for the repairs, renovations, and modernizations was based on professional judgment and opinions only, on written documents only, or on a combination of these types of sources. 27 Overall, 58 percent of schools needing to spend money based their cost estimate only on professional judgment and opinions, 36 percent based it on written documents only, and 7 percent used a combination of these types of sources (Table 7).

The estimated average dollar amount for schools needing to spend money varied by the source of the cost estimate. Schools at which the cost estimate was based on written documents only had a higher average cost per school for the repairs, renovations, and modernizations than did schools at which the cost estimate was based on professional judgment or opinions only ($3,202,000 compared with $1,497,000). One possible explanation for this is that respondents for schools at which the cost estimate was based on professional judgment or opinions only have underestimated the likely cost of the repairs, renovations, and modernizations. Another possible explanation is that schools that need more extensive repair, renovation, or modernization (and thus would need to spend more money) are more likely than schools that need less extensive work to have obtained written documents that show what the likely cost of the work will be.


10Examples of onsite temporary buildings include portables, demountables (which are prefabricated buildings assembled on site that are not intended to have a long useful life), trailers, and Quonset huts. Temporary buildings are not necessarily poorquality space. The quality of temporary buildings depends on many of the same factors as the quality of original buildings and permanent additions, including the age of the building, the type of building it is, ongoing maintenance of the building, and the infrastructure to support it (e.g., adequate heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). In some cases, new temporary buildings may be preferred by students and teachers over older permanent space (for example, see Mathews 2000).

11This questionnaire item was drawn from the 1994 GAO study.

12While this question was designed by GAO with the assumption that all schools would have original buildings, it was discovered during data collection on the FRSS survey that a few schools have removed old original buildings and left in place detached permanent additions that were added over the years. In addition, a few schools are composed entirely of temporary buildings. The data entry system on the FRSS survey was modified to allow schools to indicate that they do not have original buildings.

13Ratings of adequate or better encompass the ratings of excellent, good, and adequate. Ratings of less than adequate encompass the ratings of fair, poor, and replace. See exhibit 1 for the definitions associated with the rating scale.

14For comparison purposes, GAO reported for 1994 that 26 percent of schools reported that their original buildings were in less than adequate condition, 18 percent of schools reported their permanent additions in less than adequate condition, and 28 percent of schools reported that their temporary buildings were in less than adequate condition (U.S. GAO 1995a).

15The school characteristics used as analysis variables in this report are school instructional level, school enrollment size, locale (central city, urban fringe/large town, rural/small town), region, percent minority enrollment, and percent of students in the school eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch (which indicates the concentration of poverty in the school). These variables are defined in appendix A. Throughout this report, differences (particularly those by school characteristics) that may appear large may not be statistically significant. This is due in part to the relatively large standard errors surrounding the estimates (because of the small sample size and the high variability on some of the responses), and the use of the Bonferroni adjustment to control for multiple comparisons. Standard errors and the Bonferroni adjustment are discussed in the section on variances in appendix A. In addition, GAO reports more differences by school characteristics than are found in this study. This is discussed in appendix A in the section on comparisons to the GAO study.

16It is important to keep in mind the wide range in the prevalence of temporary buildings when examining the ratings of their overall condition. For example, the condition ratings for temporary buildings in schools with the lowest minority enrollment are based on the 25 percent of low minority enrollment schools that have such buildings, compared with the ratings for schools with the highest minority enrollment, which are based on the 51 percent of high minority enrollment schools that have such buildings. These differences in prevalence influence the likelihood that ratings of their condition will be significantly different.

17GAO reported for 1994 that for all types of buildings, two-thirds of the nation's schools were in adequate or better condition, needing at most only some preventive maintenance or corrective repair (U.S. GAO 1995a). They estimated that approximately 14 million students attended the estimated 25,000 schools in which at least one type of building was in less than adequate condition, needing extensive repair or replacement.

18This questionnaire item is drawn from the 1994 GAO study. The previous section of this report discussed types of onsite buildings (original buildings, attached and/or detached permanent additions, and temporary buildings). This section of the report discusses nine different building features (e.g., roofs, plumbing) of those onsite buildings. While the overall condition of building types may be adequate or better, the condition of individual building features may be less than adequate.

19As in the previous section, the ratings of excellent, good, and adequate have been combined into a rating of adequate or better, and ratings of fair, poor, and replace have been combined into a rating of less than adequate.

20As noted previously, differences that may appear large may not be statistically significant, due in part to the relatively large standard errors surrounding the estimates (because of the small sample size) and the use of the Bonferroni adjustment. These are discussed further in appendix A.

21GAO reported for 1994 that about 60 percent of schools reported at least one building feature in less than adequate condition, and three-quarters of those schools had more than one building feature in less than adequate condition (U.S. GAO 1995a).

22 See exhibit 1 for the definition associated with good condition.

23 The wording of the cost item on the questionnaire was taken from the 1994 GAO study. However, the GAO study asked about the condition of the types of onsite buildings, followed by the question about the cost to bring the onsite buildings into good overall condition. The question about the condition of various building features was asked several pages later in the GAO study. Thus, even though the wording of the cost question was the same in the GAO and FRSS studies, the two studies may include costs for different things, since respondents to the GAO study were not prompted to include costs associated with building features. See appendix A for information about the 1994 GAO cost estimate and further discussion of comparability issues for the cost estimates between the 1994 GAO and 1999 FRSS studies.

24 Other differences that may appear large are not statistically significant. This is due in part to the relatively large standard errors surrounding the estimates (because of the small sample size) and the use of the Bonferroni adjustment. See appendix A for a discussion of these issues.

25 Because of the large standard errors surrounding the estimates of cost per student, differences that may appear large are not statistically significant.

26 This questionnaire item is from the 1994 GAO study. However, GAO does not report data from this question in any of their reports.

27 The category of professional judgment and opinions only included the categories of best professional judgment of the respondent and opinions of other district or school administrators. The category of written documents only included the categories of capital improvement/facilities master plan, schedule or budget, facilities inspections/assessments performed within the last 3 years by licensed professionals, and repair/renovation, modernization work already being performed and/or contracted for. The category of combination of types of sources included using at least one source that was professional judgment or opinion and at least one source that was a written document.

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