This article, part of a series by the Orlando Sentinel, reveals the extent of decay in Florida's schools, foretelling an even worse time to come - the many toxic schools in our nation reflect these in Florida. One day soon, most parents may have to come up with alternatives to sending their children to their toxic local schools (SMH).
Toxic schools: Florida's aging, leaky schools outstrip dwindling pot of money to fix them
Florida schools resort to triage in fixing aging, leaky buildings
By Denise-Marie Balona, Orlando Sentinel
10:19 PM EDT, October 30, 2010
Bill Smith sends this warning to Florida's teachers, students and parents: If you think indoor-air quality in public schools is bad now, just wait a few years.
It could get a lot worse, said Smith, president of the state group representing school-facilities planners.
During the past few years, the Florida Legislature has cut hundreds of millions of dollars for public-school construction and maintenance.
"If you don't have any money to fix roofs and air-conditioning systems, which are 50 percent of the cause of your air-quality problems, what do you do?" said Smith, facilities director for the Okaloosa County School District. "Where are we going to be in five years?"
As the economy weakened, state lawmakers dipped into school capital budgets to cover other education costs such as teacher salaries. They justified the change by noting that student enrollment had tapered or even dropped in many parts of the state, presumably making it less necessary to build new schools.
But this is the funding that also pays for renovations to older buildings and maintenance projects such as replacing roofs and air-conditioning systems — expensive undertakings that are crucial in the never-ending fight against mold and other indoor-air-quality problems.
Smith points out other factors that require vigilance in keeping school buildings safe: Florida is plagued with hurricanes and high humidity, which breed mold. And about one-quarter of public-school buildings are more than 40 years old.
But cuts in capital budgets have forced districts to postpone many of their bigger projects. Across Florida, renovations also have been put off indefinitely, leaving many districts to do minor repairs on roofs that need replaced.
It also means tinkering with older air conditioners to keep them working — albeit, not always very efficiently — years after the manufacturer recommends they be taken out.
Leaky, humid buildings are perfect places for growing mold, and health experts say children are particularly vulnerable to its potentially harmful effects. Symptoms can range from itchy eyes and runny noses to respiratory infections and difficulty breathing.
In a recent report, the Orlando Sentinel documented thousands of complaints from Central Florida educators, parents and others about mold and other air-quality problems in classrooms, media centers and other school buildings.
Turning to local voters
Some Florida districts are trying to make up for funding cuts by asking local voters to approve tax increases to help them maintain school buildings. Voters — many of them strapped financially as well — will make their choices in Tuesday's election.
In Seminole County, officials are proposing a half-cent sales-tax hike, a portion of which would fix leaky roofs at Lake Brantley High and replace roofs at other campuses.
Voters in St. Johns County will be asked to pitch in more there, too. In Okaloosa County, voters rejected a half-penny sales-tax hike in August to pay for projects such as new roofs and air-conditioning systems.
Polk County schools have lost at least $39 million in construction funding since 2008.
"I think there is a glimmer of hope for us that the economy is going to turn around and the Legislature will realize what we're doing is a stopgap measure," said Fred Murphy, an assistant superintendent in Polk County.
Murphy said his district eventually will be forced to cut academic programs in order to afford air conditioners, roofs and renovations if funding does not improve.
"I think if we don't see an increase," he said, "it's ultimately at a point where you're going to see significant issues across the state."
Michigan Avenue Elementary in Osceola County is an example of how a shortage of maintenance money has impacted classrooms.
Workers keep repairing the air-conditioning system at the 50-year-old school. And parts keeps shutting down — sometimes for hours, and one time for four days.
When the air conditioning malfunctions or switches off, officials worry about rising humidity. Even when air conditioning seems to work properly, classrooms are not cooled evenly because of the layout of the aging campus.
Osceola spokeswoman Dana Schafer said there is only enough money for emergency repairs and projects designated as the highest priorities.
Volusia County schools have lost about $100 million in construction funding during the past few years thanks to state cuts and lower collections of other revenue. As a result, Volusia reduced its facilities staff by 62 people and delayed or canceled numerous renovation projects.
Director of Maintenance and Operations Russ Tysinger said money is so tight that Volusia would face a financial crisis if a bad storm or hurricane hit the coastal county and damaged schools.
"We have no cushion — we have no margin of error," he said. "We're able to hold the line if nothing goes wrong."
In Lake County, which lost at least $10 million in construction money this past school year, roofs at about a dozen schools will be up for replacement within the next five years. Yet officials say they will have difficulty affording all but basic maintenance needs.
Much school-construction and maintenance money comes from property taxes.
One of the tax rates used to fund public education previously had allowed districts to collect $2 of every $1,000 of property value for capital projects. But in 2008 and 2009, the Florida Legislature shifted some of that money into districts' operating accounts because, otherwise, teachers would be laid off and academic programs would be slashed.
That rate is now $1.50 per $1,000.
The future doesn't look much better. When state lawmakers convene for their spring session, they will face a huge financial gap that will be left in school budgets once the millions of federal stimulus dollars to districts run out.
State Sen. Stephen Wise, chairman of the Senate's education-appropriations committee, could not predict what will happen with education funding next year, although he said construction cuts are "not on my radar."
Wise suggested districts try their luck with voters and ask for tax increases. That strategy will be tested by voters in just a few days.
Denise-Marie Balona can be reached at
or 407-420-5470 or 386-228-5008.
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