COVID-19 costs, lack of inspections, add to schools’ capital funding needs
Arizona school district leaders say money spent to update school ventilation systems this summer and other costs to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when campuses re-opened is just one example of how a lack of inspections by the Arizona School Facilities Board has added to their ongoing capital funding needs.
“An important part of coming back to school safely is having good working HVAC systems that are able to move air from the outside to inside so that stagnant air that could be infected with coronavirus isn’t suspended for extended periods of time,” said Chris Thomas, general counsel and associate executive director of Arizona School Boards Association.
Yet not a single Arizona school was inspected to make sure there was proper ventilation before in-person classes began this school year, because the Arizona School Facilities Board, the agency required by state law to inspect all district school buildings, had paused inspections as the pandemic began in March, The Arizona Republic reported.
This leaves “schools susceptible for these ventilation failures which makes it more likely the virus will spread in schools,” Thomas said.
Increased air filtration and other COVID-19 related expenses are necessary to provide “a safe environment for our teachers to teach and our students to learn,” said Chino Valley Unified School District Superintendent John Scholl.
“Our total expenses related to COVID-19 are about $360,000 to date,” Scholl said. “This does not include additional personnel costs for overtime or additional staff to address needs associated with COVID-19.”
“We also have another $4,000 – $5,000 per month in high efficiency HVAC filters (currently on backorder) that are not part of this number,” Scholl said, noting the district is also working on an HVAC project for Chino Valley High School.
To help play for these expenses, Chino Valley Unified will use Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.
“We also have applied for a Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) grant and have been approved for an Enrollment Stabilization grant, but do not currently know the amount,” Scholl said. “CARES funds and the DEMA grant are specifically for COVID-19 expenses. We may also have to dip into maintenance and operations and/or capital if needed.”
Glendale Elementary School District increased their MERV air filters filtration and hired a company to replace them to help prevent the spread of COVID, said Mike Barragan, assistant superintendent for business and auxiliary services for the district. The school district also purchased personal protective equipment, hand sanitizers, gloves, masks, wipes, Lysol, plexiglass, safety goggles.
“We also contracted with a janitorial service to supplement our in-house cleaning efforts so that we could give our families, our staff and our community some peace of mind,” Barragan said. “When the day’s over, late at night, the company comes in and disinfects and uses an electrostatic approach that is going to kill COVID-19.”
In addition, Glendale Elementary School District bought iPads, Chrome Books, and Wi-Fi hot spots to support students online learning, Barragan said.
The district has spent about $4.6 million to do that from its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) money, “mainly because that was part of the federal government’s attempt to address COVID-related issues,” Barragan said.
“Had the federal money not been available, it would have been a very significant challenge to overcome,” Barragan said. “We’re also supplementing some of that with some of our own money.”
As Crane Elementary School District learned about the spread of the coronavirus, leadership decided that improved air quality and ventilation was a necessity, said Dale Ponder, chief of finance and operations for the school district that serves 6,400 pre-school- through 8th-grade students in Yuma.
“We are still in active conversations with our partners on what may be needed to improve the filtration within our schools and hope to receive a finalized cost by Thanksgiving,” Ponder said. “Many of our schools do not have windows that can be opened. Those that do also run the risk of exposing the building occupants to other threats or hazards that are mostly mitigated through a single-point of entry.”
“While we do not yet know the full cost to implement our desired solution, I suspect that we will lack the resources to appropriately address the need,” Ponder said.
“Once we have our survey completed by our HVAC partner, we hope to be able to use that to gain support from the School Facilities Board to help with that project to improve the filtration and air quality within our schools,” Ponder said.
In addition, Crane School District bought personal protective equipment for students and staff, cleaning supplies and more to prepare for students’ safe return to school when on-site student support services began on Aug. 17.
“Requests ranged from plexiglass partitions and personal protective equipment to additional staff to help facilitate a hybrid learning model,” Ponder said.
“In addition to the traditional needs of most schools, we also service an impoverished community,” Ponder said. “To prepare for that, we preordered many child masks and face shields to be available for distribution to those students who may not have appropriate face coverings.”
“When our in-person option resumed on September 22nd, we continued to provide the same for those students riding the bus and entering our campuses,” Ponder said.
The COVID-19 closure further amplified Crane Schools need to reinstitute a life cycle or refresh program for support staff computers, which was suspended when the continued cuts to capital funding occurred, Ponder said
“During the initial closure, we had staff members, who would typically use a desktop computer at their desk, without a device,” Ponder said. “Some devices did not have the computing capacity to accommodate a video camera and/or microphone to effectively use a web conferencing solution, which limited their ability to interact with peers or co-workers to meet the needs of their position.”
Crane School District, like many other schools, leveraged the funds available to them through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), the Public Assistance program through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Enrollment Stabilization Grant (ESG) to expend funds provided within the required timeframe, “but also ensure that we were able to carryover the highest budget capacities available from our general and capital funds possible to help mitigate further potential funding impacts as a result of the pandemic,” Ponder said.
Capital funding’s role in school maintenance
Chino Valley Unified, Glendale Elementary and Crane School District are three of four school districts – the others is Elfrida Elementary School District – who sued the State of Arizona and the School Facilities Board for inadequate capital funding in May 2017, saying Arizona Legislators cut $2 billion since 2009 of the capital funds schools use to maintain buildings, buses, textbooks, and technology and used it to balance the state budget.
This lawsuit is about stable capital funding to allow districts to maintain their facilities up to an adequate state standard, Thomas said.
“Districts are being forced into passing bonds or taking from funding earmarked for operational expenses because of the state’s refusal to provide adequate capital,” Thomas said. “Prop. 208 or budget overrides do not, and cannot, address capital needs.”
Why inspections are important
Frequent and routine inspections of school facilities help to ensure that buildings are being well-maintained and continue to meet the applicable minimum adequacy standards for a public school, said Ponder with Crane School District.
School districts outside Maricopa County face additional challenges when “trying to demonstrate failure within a building from a rural part of the state,” and Ponder said.
While the Arizona Legislature has increased funding for building renewal grants, the process remains competitive and school districts submitted enough applications to use the entire fiscal year 2020 amount before the pandemic began.
Crane School District has submitted building renewal grant applications for the replacement of water heaters and air conditioning components, as well as larger-scale projects such as a chiller at two schools, a cooling tower at one school, a site drainage correction project to remove nuisance water that occurs from seasonal rainfall from our bus and parent loop at one school to the retention fields to permit safer pedestrian and vehicular passage, Ponder said.
“When School Facilities Board personnel visit our district, it provides us with an opportunity to physically demonstrate to them the issue that we are trying to correct, and can further help them advocate for our needs,” Ponder said.
The School Facilities Board was created to be a pro-active board to help eliminate disparities between schools and make that no school falls below the minimum guidelines, said Barragan with Glendale Elementary School District.
It is important to remember that school buildings are an investment by taxpayers in their community, Barragan said.
“I don’t really care whether it’s at the local, state or federal level, we have a responsibility to protect taxpayer assets,” Barragan said.
Glendale Elementary’s Building Renewal Grants applications for two roofing projects were recently approved, the district is working on weatherization projects and has done work on drainage projects throughout the district and some structural issues that we encountered back in 2016 several years ago when the district closed two schools for repairs.
The lack of consistent school inspections especially hurts smaller or rural districts that may not have access to expertise or resources that larger districts do, Barragan said.
“The School Facilities Board has not done a complete inspection of our district since approximately 10 years ago,” Scholl said.
That is in direct violation of the state law that requires the School Facilities Board to inspect all school district buildings once every five years for deficiencies and do preventative maintenance inspections at 20 randomly selected districts every 30 months.
The Schools Facilities Board inspected just one school for building deficiencies in three years, The Arizona Republic reported in 2019, and only four districts from August 2019 to February 2020.
Scholl said a complete inspection would be helpful.
“We have a great facilities staff that do their best to keep our facilities in operable condition,” Scholl said. “We have some pieces of equipment that are reaching the end of their lifetimes and expect to have to replace these in the near future.”
When the district’s School Facilities Board liaison and a colleague visited a Chino Valley Unified school because they were in the area, “they were shown how the school needed painting and a discussion arose about possible solutions,” Scholl said.
“This visit resulted in a current School Facilities Board project for weatherization at Del Rio School,” Scholl said.
“A complete inspection by the School Facilities Board would allow us to show SFB staff the needs that we have so that the School Facilities Board and district can work collaboratively to address these needs,” Scholl said.
Digital divide in online learning
The pandemic has made it clear that there is a digital divide among school districts, schools, and students.
“I believe that the pandemic showed how a lack of technology due to a lack of available capital funding is having a significant impact on student learning,” Scholl said.
There is a learning divide when you talk about the availability of equipment like computers, devices, and hot spots, but that inability to have those tools for remote learning impacts the achievement gap as well, Barragan said.
“The ability to learn virtually was different throughout the state depending on access to high speed Internet and suitable electronic devices,” Thomas said.
The constitutional requirement is for the Legislature to provide a ‘general and uniform’ public school system where the funding system itself does not create disparities, Thomas said.
“During the pandemic, the lack of adequate broadband services throughout the state proves this standard is not being met.” Thomas said.
Kids in poverty are getting hurt already from not being funded adequately, and “when you displace them by doing distance learning or AOI and not returning to school and that learning gap just widens,” Barragan said.
“That’s something that we need to be mindful of at the state level and that’s something that I hope policy makers really start to focus on,” Barragan said. “I would hope that there’s appetite to re-address students in poverty and addressing their needs.”
Why districts joined the capital funding lawsuit
Chino Valley Unified chose to join the capital lawsuit for two main reasons, Scholl said.
“The first is, at the time, the district was only receiving approximately 15 percent of the capital funds that it was entitled to receive,” Scholl said. “This has been somewhat corrected since the start of the lawsuit, but the formula has not increased for inflation and the amount is not sufficient to keep up with the needs of the district.”
“The second reason is that a majority of our classrooms are cooled with swamp coolers,” Scholl said. “During the first couple of months of school, many of our classrooms are very hot and humid, making it hard for students to learn. We believe that we qualify to replace our swamp coolers under the School Facilities Board standards. We have been trying to work with the SFB to correct this for years, but we have made little headway.”
Crane School District’s driving force behind joining the capital funding lawsuit was the growing need to consistently rely on the local taxpayer to meet the obligations of the state, Ponder said.
“We have been fortunate in that our local community has graciously supported the needs of our district by agreeing to fund the replacement of school buses, technology devices and equipment, and safety infrastructure and components through our November 2018 capital override,” Ponder said.
In 2014, voters agreed to authorize a $10 million bond to address a variety of other capital related issues from a listing that breached $50 million in identified needs, Ponder said.
“Before the pandemic, we were very much focused on increased safety and security measures on our campuses,” Ponder said.
Minimum adequacy standards define security as, basically, a fence or wall, but Crane School District felt that physical design elements should be included such as “single-point access and the components within the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CTPED) principles to potentially create safer conditions for all building occupants,” Ponder said.
What should happen next
To better help school districts, the School Facilities Board, State Legislators, and policy need to assess where the capital funding deficiencies are then create a sustainable revenue source to meet and to address those deficiencies, Barragan said.
“Once that occurs then you can take the pro-active approach and ensure that they’re not falling below the guidelines,” Barragan said.
In addition, the guidelines need to be revised on an on-going basis, Barragan said.
“Technology is a good example. Back in the day, as long as you had one computer for eight kids that was considered appropriate. Not anymore,” Barragan said.
“When you have these testing requirements it really forces every child to have their own device, but the state hasn’t updated its own guidelines on that with the School Facilities Board then there’s a disconnect,” Barragan said.
Policy makers should do an assessment of needs and base funding on that, Barragan said.
“This is an opportunity for us to come together as a state and address not just the capital needs that have been neglected for so long, but as we address COVID-19 it’s also an opportunity for us to address kids in poverty, to address the learning gaps that are going to occur from them not being in school because of us not being opened,” Barragan said.
“It’s an opportunity for us to really come together and do it in a responsible manner,” Barragan said. “I would hope that our policy makers can put politics aside to come together. It has to be done in a bipartisan effort. It needs to be viewed as a partnership and not so much as us against them.”