Column: School facilities and funding, a question of fairness
In the six plus years I’ve been on the Aiken County School Board, the question asked of me more than any other has to do with fairness, or the perceived lack thereof.
The question always is asked in reference to our school facilities. Supporters of the Area 2 schools are well aware of the many needs of our “brick and mortar” facilities and the lengthy time it often takes to address them. They know that the district spends several millions of capital dollars each year on facility improvements. When timely progress is not made to address obvious needs in Area 2, the logical question to ask a board member is, “Are North Augusta schools getting their fair share of the facility improvement dollars?”
My answer is an unqualified, yes, and I’ll explain why.
The school district currently has about $17 million to spend on its facilities each year. That sounds like a large sum of money and, in some respects, it is. But that money has to do a lot of different things. With more than 40 schools and support facilities, the district is responsible for more than three million square feet of interior floor space. Routine maintenance of all that space is a high priority. That means that heating and air units and roofs must be repaired and eventually replaced. Classrooms, cafeterias and hallways must be repainted. Worn-out flooring has to be replaced. A myriad of electrical, plumbing, parking-lot paving and other infrastructure needs all demand portions of the $17 million that is available.
To the above, we must add the need for extensive renovations to some of our existing schools, necessary additions to others and construction of any new schools. Construction projects are not cheap. The recent addition and renovations to North Augusta Middle School cost about $9 million. Completed in 2009, the new Byrd Elementary cost about $17 million. A new middle or high school would cost significantly more than an elementary school.
Over the years, district administration and the board have done a very credible job of balancing the facility needs of all five attendance areas with the funds available. And, to bring it closer to home, Area 2 has been treated quite fairly.
Over the past 10 years, Area 2 students have comprised about 20 percent of total student enrollment in the district. During that same period, a little more than $160 million was spent on all of the district’s facilities. Area 2 received in excess of $42 million, or 26.5 percent, of that total. Along with needed routine maintenance at all Area 2 schools, we received a new elementary school (Mossy Creek) and the North Augusta Middle School addition. A similar fairness to our area can be shown if one cares to go back another 25 in time.
The fact is that the other four attendance areas are as much in need of facility dollars as is Area 2. None of us can get where we need to be with the existing $17 million per year. Either we will defer routine maintenance to realize necessary new construction, or we will significantly delay new facilities so we can adequately maintain our increasingly aging facilities. The pot of money is simply too small to do everything that needs to be done.
Fairness to Area 2 is not the issue. The real issue is much larger and is about fairness to students and communities across the district. A rising tide is needed that will help raise the educational “boats” in all attendance areas. How to achieve that larger concept of fairness is the subject of another article.