Water poured into Murchison Middle School’s main foyer, flooding the cafeteria and three classrooms as storms drenched Austin earlier this month. The water carried trash cans through the halls, and maintenance workers were at the school until 9 p.m. draining the mess.
Such floods aren’t uncommon at the 46-year-old school, still mostly topped by its original roof, which is now cracked and bubbling. For at least four years, water has found its way in. The school has 50 to 60 regular leaks, and Principal Sammi Harrison says she worries about mold and potential safety hazards if water drips on lighting fixtures and computers.
Schools across the district are in need of new roofs, air conditioning, heaters, piping and more — repairs and renovations that have snowballed into a $311.2 million deferred maintenance bill in recent years.
More than a third of the district’s proposed $892 million bond package would be allocated to making those fixes. The funds for the repairs are in Prop. 3, the biggest of four bond initiatives that will go before voters this spring. The repairs range from major items, like new roofs, to smaller fixes, like replacing restroom fixtures.
Critics have argued the bond is a result of bad planning on the district’s part because the repair needs have been allowed to pile up.
The district has 122 buildings, the average age of which is 41 years old, and officials say this bond would provide the first comprehensive swipe at taking care of the biggest maintenance needs.
The district’s two most recent bonds, in 2004 and 2008, provided about $249 million, combined, for maintenance and renovations at campuses. The district has spent more than $21 million annually over the past decade for maintenance, but that money only funds minor day-to-day fixes. The bond would fully replace and refurbish what the district deems “end of life” roofs, heating and air conditioning systems, sanitary sewer lines and more items that, because of their cost and expected life, are treated as capital improvements, rather than routine maintenance.
“There are a lot of situations where we’ve been Band-Aiding for several years,” said Jeffery Kauffmann, the district’s director of construction management. “We’ve got a couple of boilers we’ve literally been welding plates on plates to keep them up and running, just because we can’t afford to come in and put a new boiler in there.”
Other large school districts in Texas have recently turned to bonds for repairs. As the state has cut public education funding, major school districts like Houston and Dallas have passed billion-dollar bonds to renovate schools.
The state cut $5.4 billion in public education funding in the last biennium, and even though the new proposed House budget would add $2.5 billion back into schools, it aims most of that funding at property-poor districts. Austin, which lost $737 in per-student funding in 2011, would receive back just $28 per student next year under the budget. The district has also had to send back more than $100 million annually for the so-called Robin Hood school funding formula that requires property-wealthy school districts to contribute to property-poor districts.
Supporters of the bond package say limited state funding has forced the district to decide between fixing roofs or funding educational programs.
“Where are we going to take the money from? Are we not going to pay our teachers, or are we not going to spend it on maintenance? You’re taking it out of maintenance,” said John Blazier, an Austin lawyer and a member of the district’s bond advisory committee.
A comprehensive look
The district completed an electronic database in 2008 that monitors what repairs are needed at each campus. The district also created a small team of employees that visits every school campus and building to vet those needs. Before that, architects would volunteer their time to assess the needs at various campuses, said Paul Turner, the district’s executive director for facilities.
The new process has led to a more comprehensive look at the district’s maintenance needs, Turner said. The district’s maintenance and construction management expenses — which, combined, have ranged from about $21 million to $35 million over the past 10 years — haven’t provided enough funding to address the $311 million in repairs, he said.
“We’ve never been able to comprehensively address all of that,” Turner said. “That’ll be a big step for us if we’re able to achieve that.”
Critics say the $311 million in deferred maintenance underscores the district’s long-standing problem with planning.
“With good planning, you don’t defer serious repairs and renovations that need to occur, you go to the voters on a more regular basis with smaller amounts,” said Bill Aleshire, an Austin lawyer and a former Travis County judge. “You don’t need to wait years and years and years until it builds up into a huge bond package. That’s not the best way to plan. That’s not the best way to manage.”
Those questioning the bond also argue that while loans might be necessary for some big-ticket repairs, like the roof at Murchison, many of the repairs the district plans to make should be handled with maintenance funds.
Karen Flanagan, whose sons attend Anderson High School, said a bond isn’t necessary to add gutters, remove debris and do more of the smaller work planned at some schools.
“These are low-dollar items,” Flanagan said. “I don’t mind having money to be used correctly. AISD has a truckload of money. They don’t use it well. Why give them more?”
It’s unclear how much the district plans to spend on each repair. The district has yet to provide a detailed breakdown of the estimated costs.
The proposition also includes $25.5 million for renovations at several campuses, largely aimed at bringing them in line with requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
An additional $12.5 million in Prop. 3 would go toward new library furniture and shelving districtwide, as well as renovated and expanded libraries in several schools.
‘Only going to get worse’
Not replacing the roofs, air conditioning units and more included in Prop. 3 could mean skyrocketing repair costs, district officials say.
Rental units that would have to be brought in if the air conditioning systems fail could cost more than $17,000 a month at some campuses. If leaky roofs aren’t replaced, patching the leaks becomes a constant strain on the district’s maintenance and operations budget. The district estimates periodic repairs, including cleaning up infiltrating storm water, repairing water-damaged building materials and replacing computers and other equipment affected by leaks, could cost 10 to 20 percent of the replacement cost within three years. The costs would include relocating students or other occupants of classrooms and other facilities that have been flooded.
“We have a long list of deferred maintenance, and the longer you put it off, the more it’s going to increase. We can’t continue to patch as we go forward,” Chief Operations Officer Lawrence Fryer said. “It’s only going to get worse.”
There’s a leak in just about every classroom on the perimeter of Murchison, said Cathy Painter, whose son is an eighth-grader at the school. Painter is a member of the school’s parent teacher association and was on the bond advisory committee. She also gives tours of the school to incoming parents, and she said the condition of the school can make it a hard sell, especially to families who can afford to move to other nearby school districts, such as Eanes and Lake Travis.
“I truly feel if we don’t pass this bond, we’re on the precipice of becoming one of those typical urban school districts – like San Antonio is becoming, and Houston already is — where everyone is going to scatter to the suburban areas. We can’t afford to let that happen,” Painter said. “We wouldn’t stand for that in our own home to have leaks like that.”
District maintenance and construction expenses
The district’s maintenance and construction management expenses have fluctuated over time.
Year / 2003 / 2004 / 2005 / 2006 / 2007 / 2008 / 2009 / 2010 / 2011 / 2012
Expenditures (in millions) / $21.2 / $25 / $26.8 / $25.1 / $27.4 / $33.7 / $35.1 / $30.9 / $27.8 / $32.9
Estimated affect on property taxes
Proposition / Amount / Tax rate per $100 / for a $100,000 home / for a $200,000 home / for a $300,000 home / for a $400,000 home
Prop. 1 / $140.6 million / $0.0055 / $5.50 / $11 / $16.50 / $22
Prop. 2 / $234 million / $0.0092 / $9.20 / $18.40 / $27.60 / $36.80
Prop. 3 / $349.2 million / $0.0137 / $13.70 / $27.40 / $41.40 / $54.80
Prop. 4 / $168.6 million / $0.0066 / $6.60 / $13.20 / $19.80 / $26.40
For more information on the proposed bond package, visit www.austinisd.org/bond.
IN-DEPTH: SCHOOL BONDS
The Statesman is examining the Austin school district’s largest-ever bond package, which seeks $892 million from taxpayers to build schools, beef up technology, and repair aging facilities. This is the first in a series of four articles that focuses on each of the four bond propositions. Early voting begins April 29.