My Convertible Life

Sunday, March 24, 2013

On School Buildings and Why You Should Care

Powerful teaching and learning.

That's what I want my children to experience at school. That's what I want all children and teachers to experience at school. That's what I want the school board to focus on.

So if what I want is a Board of Education talking about powerful teaching and learning, then why do I care if my local school board retains control of school buildings? Because school facilities cannot be separated from academics -- an adequate and appropriate learning environment is a critical element of student success.

Senate Bill 236, sponsored by Sens. Neal Hunt (Wake), Tom Apodaca (Henderson) and Pete Brunstetter (Forsyth), would give county commissioners the authority to assume responsibility for the design, construction, maintenance, renovation, acquisition and ownership of school properties. Currently in North Carolina's 100 counties, the county board of commissioners provides the funding for school property purchases and construction (because they possess taxing authority and the school board does not), but the county board of education is responsible for the design, construction and ownership of school facilities. This divide, sometimes awkward and often contentious, is unusual -- more than 90 percent of school districts in the nation have fiscal independence (meaning they have taxing authority to fund their own budget).

The proposed legislation would allow all North Carolina county commissions to seize property currently owned by school boards --some county commissions might take advantage of that option now (as appears to be the case in Wake County), while others could decline for now and exercise the right at any point in the future.

I'm writing from the perspective of a Wake County resident (the bill started in the fight between the school board and the county commission in Wake), but this proposed legislation makes it an issue for the entire state. Here's why this bill is a bad idea:
  • School buildings are about education, not real estate. Numerous studies have demonstrated the link between student achievement/behavior and the physical building conditions for students and teachers. Everything from lighting and paint to ventilation and HVAC impacts student success in a school. Think that sounds crazy? Imagine how effective you'd be at work if your office roof leaked onto your desk, your work space was too cramped to be functional, the heat stopped working and you had no access to natural light all day. Each student will spend more than 16,000 hours in these buildings before graduation -- teachers and principals will spend many more than that over their careers. They deserve dynamic spaces that encourage growth, creativity and intellect, not another obstacle to success.
  • Education decisions aren't business decisions. Sen. Hunt likes to argue that business people do a better job of managing real estate decisions than educators do -- and he has some lovely (but misleading) pie charts to show his analysis of the level of business experience on county commissions versus school boards. But schools are in the business of educating children, not making profits and paying shareholders. School boards must be fiscally responsible, but student achievement should be their bottom line. I don't want the cheapest school possible; I want the best educational environment for my money. Even the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce -- an entire organization of business people -- is opposed to this bill. And because county commissions already control the purse strings in North Carolina, they don't need this bill to manage the money.
  • Experience matters. The Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) is an award-winning district when it comes to building design -- including nods from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Decades of experience inform the school board policy that defines design guidelines for school construction to ensure an effective learning environment, including everything from windows in classrooms to the size of science labs. School boards -- the elected officials closest to the classroom -- are in the best position to understand the complex requirements for a successful school. The county commissioners do not have a similarly strong track record with large building projects on this scale.
  • The user, not the owner assumes liability. There are unanswered questions in the proposed legislation around liability issues. The county commission wants the option to assume ownership, but they do not appear eager to assume any liability related to the buildings or the property. Because of the vagueness of the bill (whether intentional or not), school boards would still be liable for incidents on school property. In other words, school boards would be surrendering their expertise in design decisions as well as their power to impose risk management strategies during the design and construction processes, but still be held accountable for injuries sustained on school grounds. Not only is this bad policy, this uncertainly could result in poor bond ratings for the entire system (poor bond ratings make construction more expensive).
  • Checks and balances lead to better decisions. Leaving funding authority with the county commission maintains their control over taxing and bond decisions. Leaving design, construction and maintenance responsibilities with the school board maintains their control over the connection between school facilities and academic factors, student assignment, overcrowding, feeder patterns between grade levels and infrastructure needs to support teachers and students. Neither group holds all the power, resulting in a level of accountability that would disappear under the proposed legislation.
  • Politics are contentious enough. Given the division of authority between the school board and the county commission, there's already plenty for them to argue over in budget and bond decisions. This bill does nothing to solve the current challenges and actually makes them worse by removing those responsible for the schools from the process of creating them. In Davie County, just southwest of Winston-Salem, the school district can't get county commissioners to agree to fund the building of a second high school or renovations to the existing high school despite the fact that an independent analysis by the state (and any parent walking into the building) identified a desperate need (more on this from the W-S Journal and a Davie County blogger). 
  • Sales tax exemption isn't a good reason. Sen. Hunt argues that school boards pay more for construction because they have to pay sales tax on purchases, while county commissions are exempt. However, until 2005, local boards of education were able to use tax refunds. Many other groups, including cities, counties, public universities, private schools and other non-profits, can apply for a sales tax refund or exemption. If Sen. Hunt really wants to propose a useful bill for education facilities, he and the state legislature could eliminate this change and make local education authorities tax-exempt again.
There is one thing that Sen. Hunt and I agree on: school boards need to be able to focus on education. Unfortunately, he and Senate Bill 236 will cripple their ability to do just that.

Special thanks to Jennifer Brock, a Raleigh-based architect with years of experience in school design and mother of four WCPSS students, for her professional advising on this post.

If you'd like to write to your legislators on this issue, visit Wake Classrooms Count (if you're a Wake County resident) or search for your people here. Or use this list to email the members of the Senate Education Committee:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,


  1. "school facilities cannot be separated from academics" HOGWASH! Give me better teachers and trailers ANY day - in fact that's where my kids are! Facilities didn't hinder kids who grew up in the old one room schoolhouse! Ever read a 5th grade reading book from 100 years ago? Most college kids would have a hard time comprehending it. Home schoolers consistently rank high in SAT's and always seem to win the Spelling Bees...They don't have "dynamic spaces that encourage growth, creativity and intellect"
    If you dont want the County Commissioners to take over the real estate of the schools, fine, but don't make ridiculous statements like the ones you have!

    1. Steve, I'm glad that your kids have great teachers -- that is definitely the priority. But personally I'm aiming higher than an either/or scenario -- I'd really like for my kids (and other kids in Wake County) to have both great teachers AND a great facility. Give any teacher the option between a well-equipped, well-designed classroom or a cobbled-together trailer, and I'm confident they'd choose the former.

      The successful homeschool families I know work really hard to ensure that they have a good environment for teaching and learning in their homes and in other sites that they visit -- they are most definitely using their space to encourage growth, creativity and intellect.

      If I believed that the state legislature was treating teachers well and doing everything to support them, then maybe facilities wouldn't seem like such a big deal. But given that teachers in NC are already underpaid, overworked and undervalued, we should be doing everything we can to ensure they have better working conditions -- including the facilities they're in.

  2. Convertible girl..very well done and so true! We are dealing with some major issues in Davie County. We only have one high school. It is almost 60years old, overcrowded, 28trailers, no auditorium, gymnasium and cafeteria that are undersized, science labs that don't meet guidelines, and multi building sprawling campus with over 80 exterior doors..makes a huge safety concern for parents and staff.
    We have fabulous teachers, but the facility is inadequate. The BOE and superintendent have approved plans for a new HS, but the Commissioners are fighting against it and making it extremely difficult..they are forcing it go to a bond vote and scaring taxpayers that it will be huge tax burden on them, so it wont pass. Unfortunately we have County Commissioners who do not value education, children, or the desire to have a better future for generations . This legislation would be detrimental to Davie County.
    Thanks for your insightful post.

  3. I thought the points in this blog were spot on--especially the checks and balances argument!!!

    Public school is one of the great foundations of this county. If you support home school, good for you. It's wonderful if your family can afford it and has enough academic talent to make it effective for your kids. However, many public school children also perform exceptionally well on SATs. Remember that public schools have as their goal the education of all children, not just select children from supportive families.

    I agree that the teachers are the crucial factor for a good education. A passionate teacher who works hard on his or her craft can make learning happen in a shack. (Sadly, many talented, sincere and hard-working teachers have left the profession as pay has remained frozen and the political climate has turned hostile.) But what message do we, the adults, send to our children when we do not invest in facilities? We tell them to value education, but do we back our words with our investments? And the one-room-school house argument is apples to oranges. Study the demographics of the children who had the ability to even get to high school, rather than go to work to help their families, in the days of the one-room school house. That significantly changes the equation. Saying that all kids were so much smarter way back when is a platitude. Kids are plenty smart now too.

    Support educators with the right tools for the job.

    Regardless of anybody's opinion upon the state of schools, I would hope it would bother us all as voters that in the last election, we knowing selected the people we wanted to make decisions about our schools and the people we wanted to make decisions about county government. We understood those roles when we voted. To change that with this heavy-handed legislation is a little chilling to me.

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