November 2017 superintendent update

Why school districts ask to build new schools
November 15, 2017


As a superintendent I am often asked, “Why do we need to build new schools? Aren't the ones we have just fine?” Before I present Battle Ground's needs, I want to qualify what the word “new” means in terms of school construction.


When districts construct new school buildings in this state, it is with the understanding that the building’s life span will be greater than 30 years. The reason for this is that if a school district in Washington wants to qualify for state matching funds to replace the older school, the building to be replaced must be at least 30 years old.


Consequently, when we talk about needing “new” buildings as replacements for older schools (not additional schools to accommodate growth), we are referring in 2017 to buildings that were constructed prior to the mid-1980s. 


Here are the reasons why school districts replace older buildings:

1.       School safety requirements

Unfortunately, many tragic instances of school violence have occurred in the past 20 years.  Older schools simply were not built with safety features in mind. Many schools constructed in our area in the seventies or before were built with what is called a “California” design, meaning access to classrooms are mostly from the outside, and there are few, if any, indoor hallways. The reason for building like this is that school districts wanted to reduce the cost for square footage by eliminating hallways.


Current construction utilizes economies of multiple-floor design to reduce hallway footage and create secure indoor access. Trying to retrofit older California designs to accommodate new safety standards, including infrastructure related to earthquake standards, camera systems and automatic door locks, is not economically sound, and cost analyses show that total reconstruction is a better use of taxpayer dollars. 


2.       Infrastructure for updated technology

When one looks at the technology needed to teach students competitive skills for the 21st century workplace, you see that schools constantly struggle to meet the demand. A simple look at the history of personal computing reveals that the laptop and World Wide Web were just coming into existence in 1991.


Any school building 30 years or older requires a tremendous amount of infrastructure improvements to keep up with advances in technology. Replacing an older school in lieu of retrofitting outdated wiring and constant maintenance of older systems seems a wiser use of district resources.

 

3.       Upkeep and cost efficiencies

Like your own home, roofs, heating and cooling systems, plumbing and wiring require more and more upkeep over time. While our motto in the Battle Ground School District is to keep students “safe, warm and dry,” this becomes a constant challenge as our buildings continue to age. There comes a point when school districts must weigh the costs of making frequent repairs and renovations to outdated schools against replacing them with new, modern facilities.

 

4.       Accommodating growth

Typically, older buildings were constructed to accommodate the population at that time in a particular area.  If the student population increases, schools must accommodate the growth by either adding more students to existing classrooms or adding portable buildings. What is typically not increased or added to when a school gains more students is the core facilities such as gyms, cafeterias, libraries, parking lots and offices to accommodate additional support staff. In other words, more people must share the same amount of core space. 


Buildings more than 30 years old situated in areas that are seeing population growth struggle to adequately house and serve students. The district then needs to decide whether to relieve the overcrowding by shifting attendance boundaries, if feasible, and maintaining the older building, or by replacing the older building with newer and possibly larger facilities. Again, the economics of new construction make better long-term financial sense than adding to a 30-year-or-older building.

 

5.       Relationship between student attendance and academic performance

In the past ten years, several research studies have linked the relationship between student attendance and academic performance to the condition of the school buildings students attend. In studies conducted in large districts in California, Texas and Wisconsin, results show a statistical increase in attendance and academic performance when students attend newer, updated buildings rather than older schools. It makes sense that students would be proud of their surroundings, and as a former school principal, I can attest that there was a “pride of ownership” when my students felt good about their school.

 

I personally believe a community takes great pride in having quality schools. The first thing that home buying parents ask realtors when searching for a new home is “how are the schools in the area?"  In conversations with local business owners, I am often told that good schools have a tremendous impact on attracting tax paying workers and businesses to a region.  

 

So when people ask me, “why do we need new schools?” I can point to several reasons why  school districts build new rather than retrofit buildings. But the most important one for me is: it's one of the factors that helps students to reach their highest potential.

Sincerely,


Mark Ross

Superintendent of Battle Ground Public Schools