This story about school debt is part of the series Districts in Debt, which examines the hidden financial pressures challenging American schools.
EFFINGHAM, Kan. — In 2014, a cash-strapped school district in rural northeast Kansas turned to its residents with a plea: Pay a little more in taxes annually so we can renovate classrooms, update the wiring and give students better spaces to learn.
Voters rejected the measure by a margin of 54 to 46 percent. While disappointing, the results were hardly surprising to the district’s leaders. Unified School District 377 has tried — and failed — to pass measures for capital construction five times in 18 years. The last successful school bond campaign was in 1974.
Since then, maintenance problems have compounded. One snowy morning this January, the 26-year-old boiler in the district’s central office building, which also houses the preschool and kindergarten classes, sputtered to a stop. Replacing it would cost as much as $50,000, said Superintendent Andrew Gaddis, who has been in the position for about 18 months. The best-case scenario would be an affordable patch job that would last through the winter, buying the school board a little more time.
“We’ll have to find the money somewhere,” said Gaddis in his office later that month, sporting a small blue and gold “Kansans Can” pin on the lapel of his blazer. “Any teacher will tell you kids can’t learn if they’re not comfortable.”
The nation’s school districts spend about $46 billion less per year on facility upkeep than is needed to maintain “healthy and safe” learning environments, according to a 2016 report from the 21st Century School Fund, a research and advocacy organization. In February, the House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing on “Underpaid Teachers and Crumbling Schools,” where witnesses spoke about facilities problems. Anna King, a vice president of the National PTA, who lives in Oklahoma, spoke about poor districts in the state struggling to borrow money. “While areas like Oklahoma City and Tulsa can use bonds to try to close the gap, other parts of the state are in disrepair and are too poor to finance through bonds,” she said.
Although most states help pay for some construction costs, almost half, including Kansas, pay less than 10 percent. That means that, for the most part, districts in those states are at the mercy of voters to finance capital projects, such as building new schools and making major renovations to existing ones. Affluent communities with a strong tax base are able to borrow money and pass bond measures, while low-wealth districts — particularly in rural areas — struggle to do so. The funding structure “is inherently and persistently inequitable,” the 21st Century School Fund report authors concluded. The research and advocacy organization EdBuild called states’ education funding systems outdated, arbitrary, and segregating.
In Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and other cities, districts have struggled to maintain elderly buildings plagued by significant health risks like mold, contaminated water, asbestos and inadequate heating and cooling — all conditions considered nonnegotiable in affluent communities, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. Rural districts pour money into buildings that are long past their prime in a desperate fight to stave off closure or consolidation.
“It’s just one more nail in the coffin of small towns that are already struggling,” Filardo said. “The county hospital closed, and the mom-and-pop shops are gone because Walmart opened. When you lose the schools, you lose the community.”
And in states like Oklahoma and Kansas that have made drastic cuts to education funding, districts are doubly stressed. Kansas districts saw their financial problems amplified by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s controversial 2012 tax cuts that limited the available dollars for capital construction, renovations and repairs and contributed to a chaotic restructuring of school funding.
Related: Switching sides in the teacher wars
Between the 2008 to 2009 recession and what many in Kansas refer to as “the Brownback years,” school facilities here have taken a serious hit. Districts that put off making repairs when money was tight are now playing expensive games of catch-up.
But many, like Unified School District 377, located about 65 miles northwest of Kansas City, can’t even afford to do that. In the last bond that passed, in 1974, voters let the district borrow nearly $2 million, enough to build a new high school. It’s still the newest building in town, though it’s now the junior/senior high school for grades 7 through 12, and shows inevitable signs of wear and tear despite the district’s best efforts to maintain it. There are sloping floors in hallways, drooping ceiling tiles and temperamental lighting fixtures. At certain times of the day sunlight peeks through the cracks in one classroom’s cinder-block walls. There’s no room to store athletic equipment, so the high school wrestling team’s mats have taken over the floor of the elementary school’s former multipurpose room, where practices are held. On competition days, team members have to transport the mats to the junior/senior high school, a half-mile away.
Brett Delich, who teaches physical education at USD 377’s junior/senior high school, said the district’s failed campaigns are “crazy to me.” He added, “We aren’t asking for a bigger weight room. We’re just trying to fix the windows and bring the water fountains up to date.” Delich worries about the unspoken element of the failed bond measures. “It sends a message that education isn’t important,” he said. “It sends that message to the kids, to be honest.”
The state’s expectation that districts should mostly fend for themselves when it comes to capital construction creates stark contrasts across district boundaries. USD 377 draws from 350 square miles, most of it sprawling farmland and tiny townships. The district’s schools are in Effingham, where the business district isn’t much more than a few modest blocks. Amid shuttered storefronts, there’s Martha’s Stitch Shop, a senior center and Effingham’s only bar.
Nearly twenty miles east on the county highway, USD 409, with 1,700 students and about 53 square miles of territory, includes the city of Atchison.
Its longtime superintendent, Susan Myers, said that, like its more rural counterpart, the city district has its own challenges, including serving a growing number of children in foster care. And about 65 percent of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 44 percent in the rural district. But compared to the rural district, Atchison has a significantly stronger tax base of businesses and industry. Atchison bills itself as the most-haunted city in Kansas and draws additional tourism trade as the birthplace of Amelia Earhart.
Effectively, those extra tax dollars also mean that no one in the city district can remember the last time they failed to pass a school bond measure. The most recent capital campaign secured $8.8 million in 2012. The money went to repairs, renovations and remodeling. That included expanding the performing arts space at the high school to better accommodate its band and its growing show choir program, which has since garnered numerous honors in regional competitions.
“We know kids who are involved in activities do better — they have higher GPAs, attendance and graduation rates,” Principal Bryon Hanson said. “Our fine arts kids are experiencing a tremendous amount of success. That’s contagious. That carries over into English, science, math.”
Rosie Stone, a junior at the high school, said participating in show choir is one of the highlights of her week. But she also knows she’s lucky, and that such opportunities aren’t a given.
“I don’t think anyone would see this state as a place with a whole lot of money for schools,” Rosie said. “It would be nice to have more options.”
Even with the generosity of its voters, the city district still has to prioritize its facilities work and conserve dollars whenever possible. “We’re covering the essentials, not luxuries,” Myers said. “But that’s a lot more than many other districts have been able to manage. We don’t take that for granted.”
In 2011, the rural district, USD 377, closed two elementary schools due to low enrollment and to save on operational expenses, Superintendent Gaddis said. The classes were consolidated into a three-story building built in 1929 as a high school. But the music room is on the second floor, and kindergartners and first-graders are prohibited by safety laws from attending classes above the first level.
“To retrofit [a] building of this age would be a cost we could not afford in these trying times,” the maintenance supervisor of USD 377 wrote in a fire code waiver request, which promised that the young students would spend no more than 25 minutes per day on the upper floor and extra fire drills would be practiced throughout the year. Two years later, a school bond measure that would have raised $17.5 million to build a new K-8 facility failed by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.
Today, USD 377 still relies on that waiver, as groups of 5- and 6-year-olds dutifully troop upstairs for carefully timed 25-minute windows, a few times each week.
While the school facilities in her rural district are “pretty creaky,” eighth-grader Aleah Wallisch said it’s been a good place to be a student, with supportive teachers and opportunities for clubs and athletics. That being said, if it were up to her she would update the bleachers at the sports field to encourage more community members to attend games. And more modern classrooms might attract more students to enroll through the state’s school choice options, she said. “It would be nice to have more kids around, and new faces.” As for the failed bond measures that might have helped make her ideas reality, “It makes me feel sad,” Aleah said. “I would really enjoy a better and improved school.”
In farming communities “the wealth is in the ground,” said Superintendent Gaddis. “It’s not like a city where you see it all around you.” As Gaddis led a walking tour from his office to the junior/senior high school, Steve Caplinger, the district’s treasurer, stepped out of his real estate insurance office to say hello. Gaddis took the opportunity to update Caplinger — a former school board member — about the broken boiler. Looking concerned, Caplinger speculated that the replacement could cost “forty, maybe fifty,” prompting Gaddis to interject “the guy is telling me $50,000.”
Caplinger said he doesn’t begrudge local voters who have shot down the bond measures, saying that in their minds “there are plenty of reasons to vote no.” Some residents have opted to send their children to schools in neighboring districts, or don’t have school-aged kids. Others are graduates of the local schools themselves and have an emotional attachment to the older buildings that they’re reluctant to give up, Caplinger said. And there’s a contingent who believe that the conditions of the facilities aren’t dire enough to warrant raising taxes.
He also understands frustrations expressed by some Kansas lawmakers who believe districts generally are spending too much — rather than too little — on capital projects, particularly when it comes to athletics. But that perception is based on a limited view of public education in the state, and it’s certainly not reflective of places like his rural district, he said.
“You go to Topeka and they have facilities and programs we could only dream of,” Caplinger said. “But they also have the tax base.”
Caplinger is far from alone in pointing out long-standing fiscal disparities among Kansas school systems. The Sunflower State has been enmeshed in a nearly nine-year legal battle over its education funding formula, which resulted in a state Supreme Court ruling that the status quo is both inadequate and inequitable, and favors wealthy districts over poorer ones. The legislature is still wrangling over the final details of a new funding plan for court approval.
The state’s current school funding formula takes into account that some districts struggle more than others to generate revenue for facilities, said Gov. Laura Kelly. A Democrat, Kelly took office in January after decisively winning this deep-red state, partly because of her promises to be “the education governor.” Many Kansans, including those in both USD 377 and USD 409, are hopeful that the resolution of the long court battle will bring stability — and maybe some extra dollars — to public education.
“Kansans are fiscally conservative in that they don’t want to waste money, but certainly I have found them very willing to invest money — particularly in their kids, particularly in the public schools,” Kelly said. “The public schools are probably the number-one priority of Kansans overall.”
Meantime, USD 377 has resorted to creative solutions, such as teaming up with a local contractor to fix some of the worst areas of the exterior entrances and parking lot pro bono. Vocational students were tapped to help, gaining real-world experience and, in a few cases, landing job offers from the company as a result, said Assistant Principal Cy Wallisch.
Those kinds of workaround partnerships are a consistent theme among rural and suburban districts that struggle with inadequate state funding and an inability to raise extra dollars through local revenue, said Marguerite Roza, a professor of education and director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. “There is more of a solutions mentality to facilities than other aspects of education,” Roza said. “It’s not unusual for a superintendent to go straight to a local roofing company and say ‘Can you cut us a deal?’ ”
A longtime area resident whose four older children are graduates of USD 377 (the fifth and youngest is eighth-grader Aleah), Assistant Principal Wallisch believes there’s enough enthusiasm in the town to help the schools even if it’s not yet reflected at the ballot box. The district needs to do a better job conveying the urgency of the need and that it represents a relatively small increase in annual taxes to individual residents, Wallisch said, noting that the tax levy proposed in 2015 would have worked out “to the cost of a pizza a month.”
There’s talk of starting a community foundation to raise funds directly for school capital expenses as an end run around the lack of voter support. But that’s still in early stages and no one’s banking on the extra dollars, said Superintendent Gaddis. “We have our struggles. But we’re going to do the best we can with what we have.”
For now, his most immediate challenge is relocating the preschool and kindergarten classes to another building: the boiler didn’t make it.
This story about school facilities is part of a series about school debt and was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.