New GAO report on school infrastructure underlines need for urgent public facilities stimulus funding
As if our country’s COVID-19 response hadn’t already demonstrated the need for renewed infrastructure in our public facilities, a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that our K-12 school buildings are in even worse shape than we thought. The report found more than half the public school districts in the U.S. need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools, and in particular highlighted concerns over aging HVAC systems, interior lighting, and structural integrity.
The report concluded that a stunning 36,000 schools nationwide need to update or replace their HVAC systems. The HVAC issues described weren’t referencing minor issues like a less-than-ideal indoor temperature, rather, multiple school districts reported instances of school closures due to extreme heat and the potential for mold and air quality problems. In Maryland, school district officials expressed safety concerns over moisture and condensation due to out-of-date piping and insulation, but were limited in their ability to remedy these issues with an estimated $1 million cost per building.
HVAC systems were just one of many infrastructure concerns raised by the GAO report. An estimated 28,000 schools across the country need to update or replace roofing, and about 30,000 schools need to upgrade their interior lighting, with switching to energy-efficient LED systems to save on utility costs listed as a priority. Overall, school officials surveyed in the report expressed an understanding of the health, safety, and long-term cost benefits of undertaking modern infrastructure upgrades to create a more conductive learning environment, but were torn between using limited funds on direct educational enhancements or facility repairs. In one Rhode Island school district, officials said they were using most of their $300 million capital plan just to keep schools safe, warm, and dry, while estimating the total cost of upgrades needed at $1 billion. Gaps in funding are even more prominent for high-poverty districts, which spent about $300 less per student on capital construction expenditures than low-poverty districts.
Even more alarming is the fact that all of these shortfalls existed prior to the arrival of COVID-19, which is likely to compound the need for renewed public facilities as schools plan for the daunting task of reopening their doors to students this fall. A recent response to a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers survey on reopening illustrated this concern, stating that schools “cannot deal with facilities without a pandemic.” For example, existing HVAC problems will become even more critical to address as evidence suggests the poor ventilation can contribute to the virus’ spread.
These concerns directly align with those raised in the Alliance’s Mission Critical Facility Renewal proposal (part of our four-pronged recovery plan for COVID-19), which would address our country’s $1 trillion deferred maintenance backlog for public buildings with an influx of federal funding to retrofit our facilities for the future. This proposal paves the way for robust investment in public building renewal by utilizing public-private partnerships – including energy performance contracting and energy as a service agreement – to leverage $4 of private spending for every $1 in public funding. Private funding can be used to invest in energy efficiency and other measures that pay for themselves over time through reduced operating costs, while public funding can be directed toward critical infrastructure improvements related to health, safety, and facility resilience.
Despite the critical need for HVAC and lighting improvements, more than 90% of school officials indicated that their highest priority for renovations was safety and security, including investments in security cameras, alarms, and access controls, while another 78% gave high priority to environmental monitoring and management. The Mission Critical Facility Renewal program would address these priorities by retrofitting schools and other public buildings to modern standards for safety and security including through increased ventilation, air and surface disinfection, drinking water, emergency lighting, life safety, access controls, and cybersecurity. These same facilities would also be made more efficient, resilient, and flexible in order to support future public health and other emergency needs.
While the report shows that many schools are in need of comprehensive infrastructure renovation, another avenue for tackling this work could in some cases come from the Alliance’s Small Business Energy Efficiency Grant proposal. Using existing utility demand side management (DSM) programs, that proposal leverages the more than $8 billion invested annually in DSM programs to provide supplemental federal funding to achieve 100% incentive rates for qualified projects. Many public schools would qualify for this increased incentive under their utility’s non-residential “direct install” program.
Both proposed stimulus programs would quickly help address the critical facility needs plaguing K-12 schools across our country as outlined in the GAO report, while also readying schools for new challenges presented by COVID-19. All of this can be done while simultaneously providing local jobs for our many unemployed building construction and energy services workers, who have been hit hard by COVID-19 shutdowns. By incorporating these proposals into future economic recovery packages, we can put our country on the right track by providing healthy, safe, and resilient facilities for our communities