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U.S. School Buildings Earn D Grade in Infrastructure Report

American schools are for the most part woefully out-of-date, according to the latest Report Card for America's Infrastructure, released this week.

Schools are a low point in an already mostly grim report conducted once every four years by the American Society of Civil Engineers on the state of the country's core: aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy systems, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, public parks, railways, roads, schools, solid waste disposal, public transportation and waste water. While American infrastructure overall ticked up from a D grade in 2009 to a D-plus in 2013, schools have remained flat at D, a "poor" grade.

There is less information on the status of school buildings overall than that of other types of infrastructure, such as roads or bridges, because federal data on school facilities has not been updated since 1999. However, the report forecast that federal, state, and local governments would need to spend $270 billion to update and maintain all of the nation's schools, almost half of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Total school construction and modernization spending has been on the decline since 2004, falling from nearly $30 billion to a little more than $10 billion in 2012. However, since 2009 there has been a minor increase in spending on school additions and modernizations. Because school construction is paid for primarily through local taxes, the report authors found construction and maintenance budgets took an outsized hit in the recent recession.

The report calls for the federal government to provide more regular updates on school conditions and to work with states to create a national database of school conditions and available funds and financing to improve them.

The report also recommends districts to put in place more comprehensive maintenance plans and schedules to help older buildings last longer and more efficiently.

While schools and districts are still mostly strapped for cash, improving buildings' efficiency can save significant money. Jeffrey K. Platenberg, one of Education Week's "Leaders to Learn From" saved more than $28 million during his tenure at exurban Loudoun County schools in northern Virginia by ensuring schools were energy-efficient and maintained properly. And studies have shown that well-designed buildings can contribute to a positive social and academic climate in schools.


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