Monday, March 16, 2015

The Real Cost of Budget Cuts 3: Facilities, A Photo Essay

This week, I can finally write the piece that has been on hold because my best evidence for it has been buried beneath the snow. Last week’s thaw allowed this intrepid investigative journalist (or mouthy middle-aged English teacher—whatever) and my trusty assistant (or super handsome husband—whatever) to hit the road and examine some exterior school facilities issues that are symbolic of the county’s unending cuts to the public school system.


Hard-Nosed Budget Beat Reporters

I’m excited about this post because it offers the chance to rely more on photos than on words. I had a particular focus in mind: the tennis courts at all five high schools, which are likely to be condemned (as the Perryville High School field was last year), because the tennis courts are emblematic of everything schools are up against in this budget morass.

A Perryville parent, Frances Bowman, has been a tremendous advocate for the public schools (including that PHS field) via her website, perryvilleparent.com. Check out that page for more facts and figures than we should ever need to justify full school funding. I dedicate this post to her because she is proof that parents are our best allies in this mess, and we need them.

You see, schools have made the case for funding in countless ways, and yet nothing changes. I am at a loss as to what it will take to end the single-mindedness of the commentary coming from the county government offices. They are firm in their stance that they will not fully fund the schools. They continually dodge their responsibility for specific school funding issues by saying, “We don’t tell the schools how to spend their money.” Yes, you do. Every cut you make to the overall school budget is a cut to everything the schools are trying to fund. This post, like those on poverty and special education, shows that schools have no “good” options for cutting, and they haven’t had any “good” options for quite some time.

So let’s start our tour. We began in our own neighborhood in the Town of North East. Near our house rests historic North East Middle School (once North East High School). I love living near the school. My kids were walkers during their years there, and my dog loves jumping through the snow in its parking lot before the school custodians clear it away. In the back of the building lies the evidence that the schools are absolutely correct in starting to charge non-school organizations to use their facilities for activities.

North East Middle School


I see the number of groups that use those fields for a whole slew of afternoon and evening activities all year long, and that usage has left those fields a patchwork of shredded wheat. Someone has to pay that bill, and it should be the organizations doing the damage.

The damage that outside organizations do to schools is real. Having once worked at Elkton High School (the most often publicly used building in the system), I have seen teachers’ personal classroom equipment and supplies (remember the ones I mentioned in the first budget blog?) used without permission during weekend activities, I have seen electronic equipment in the auditorium disappear after an outside group has used the stage, and I have seen the trash left by outside groups using the football field. The school system has been nice about that for far too long. It’s time to pay the piper.

After that, we headed to my workplace…

North East High School—home of the Indians, a place of parent and community involvement, a school set among the birds and the trees. Even after this winter nastiness, it’s still really pretty.

North East High School

But this building and its exterior facilities should have been renovated years ago. The boiler is inefficient and ancient (it was installed during the Johnson Administration, after all), and repairing any of it in this budget climate involves picking and choosing from among the worst of the worst facilities dilemmas both inside and out.


North East High School

Note the drainage issues. Note the dilapidation. Note the long-term damage to multiple sites around the campus. And that’s just a few shots of the exterior. When I discussed our facilities issues with my principal, she explained how we receive a little bit of help via the Aging Schools money from the state (our only other real facilities funding source during these budget cuts), but those funds come with so little cash that the choices involved are ridiculous:
  • All of our circa 1968 bathrooms need renovation, but Aging Schools money could only pay for two of them. (Want to smell 1968 again? It still lives here.)
  • Both our boys and girls locker rooms were appalling, but Aging Schools money only paid to renovate one of them. The boys locker room was a bit more horrifying, so the boys locker room was renovated, and the girls locker room was not.
  • All of our parking areas needed new paving, but only the bus ramp rose to the level of awful that the money would fund, so the rest of the pavement is a hodge-podge of the sparse and the inadequate with drainage that leaves it looking more like an ice rink in winter than a school.

My principal expressed frustration that no project is ever completed to the extent that it needs to be completed, and the custodians try to keep everything patched together as best they can, but as our head custodian told our principal (about that boiler), “I’m out of fixes for it.”

Speaking of patched up: tennis anyone?

North East High School tennis courts

The latest part of our sports programs on deck for condemnation involves the tennis courts at all five high schools. If you think that my old school building’s problems are unique to its age, think again. New school or old, we have a problem.

Elkton High School—home of the Golden Elks, a place of now-beautiful facilities (and near-relentless community use of those facilities), a place of energy and diversity…and really bad tennis courts.

Elkton High School tennis courts

EHS was the last county school to be renovated anywhere near to the level that it deserved to be. Even that project ran out of money, however, so despite its beauteous main building, its tennis courts are just as bad as those at North East.

Bohemia Manor High School—home of the Eagles, with a pastoral beauty equaled only by the colonial cuteness of its nearby town, Chesapeake City, a place made for quiet strolls and local shopping and weekend getaways…just don’t bring your tennis racket.

Bohemia Manor High School tennis courts

Perryville High School—home of the Panthers, gateway to I-95 and legalized gambling, near Port Deposit, one of the aesthetically coolest small towns I’ve ever seen…and not on Serena Williams' bucket list. (These photos were taken after school on Monday--that's the PHS tennis coach in the white top. Thanks to the tennis team for not clocking me in the head with any tennis balls. I had it coming.)

Perryville High School tennis courts

And finally, saving the most horrifying for last…

Rising Sun High School—home of the Tigers, Kilby Cream’s dairy deliciousness, more old-school farming adorability than the new millennium can handle…and the scariest tennis courts of the bunch.

Rising Sun High School tennis courts

Note the consistency of how bad these court conditions are—the potential for student injury (you should feel those cracks move under your feet), the likelihood that all of them will not just need repair or repaving but probable demolition. Are tennis courts the most pressing issue in public schools today? No. I hope the previous blogs on poverty and special education gave some perspective on that. But these courts are symbolic. They demonstrate a few key elements of the budget debate better than anything else. The tennis courts are a symbol:

1.      All schools are affected by these cuts regardless of the age of the buildings or the socieconomics of their communities, just as all of these tennis courts are a nightmare.
2.    The funding cuts have led to scaling back the maintenance of school facilities for so long that much bigger (and more expensive repairs) are now needed, just as the tennis courts problem once was small and now likely needs a wrecking ball.
3.    At first, we all played along with cuts and hoped that over time funding would come as the economy rebounded. But funding has not been restored regardless of rebound. Like these tennis courts, with every change of seasons, school funding only gets worse.
4.    Like these tennis courts, public schools are YOUR property—you, the taxpayer. If these courts were a part of your home and you had a few hundred kids using them on a regular basis, is this a problem you might address? Let's say you decide to delay fixing the tennis courts because you’ve got to pay for special education expenses or for services for children living in poverty or for a new federally mandated testing system or for payroll because you are one of your county’s largest employers. Well, which of those things is your priority? Which thing gets cut first? Which thing is least important? Which thing is expendable? Which safety issue is the most pressing safety issue? Once a student breaks an ankle on one of these cracks, would your priorities change then? What gets cut then?

My response to county government when they start in with the “We don’t tell the schools how to spend their money" nonsense is now, “Shhh. If you can’t say anything true, then don’t say anything at all.”

And while you’re not saying anything at all, do so in the deluxe, well-drained environs of the county government building, a place of space and canopied vehicle storage and modern HVAC and generator equipment and well-manicured trails and benches...
Cecil County government building

Your headquarters are very nice, and they are the clean and healthy facilities that you should have. How about we give the kids a piece of that action? Or maybe we could at least run some cross-country meets on those trails? Those trails are really nice, and ours are underwater. You see, our headquarters look like this…
Carver Center school headquarters

Not too bad for a building from the—what is it—Truman era? And our vehicles are kind of squished into that gated area, but it’s cool. Seriously—we just don’t want you to take even more away. And perhaps, when our local newspaper comment-threaders are mad about their kids’ extracurricular activities having to pay fees to use school properties, they’ll use these photos to remind themselves of a few things:
  • which government entity is actually doing more with less
  • which government entity has eliminated positions time and again
  • which government entity deserves full funding for the first time in 8 years

The thus-far unsung heroes of this post are our school custodians. They are overworked, underpaid, and often the only thing between the humans in a school and disaster. They do an amazing job of keeping these buildings and fields functioning much longer and much better than anyone could imagine. If they had facilities and equipment worthy of them, just imagine what they could do. I wish that the school system had the means to support them in their jobs in the way that they deserve. Custodians save the day (and have saved the day for me personally) many, many times. 

Most of our facilities issues are much graver concerns and have much bigger price tags than tennis courts. The tennis courts nonetheless make the case:
  • This is your county. 
  • These are your schools. 
  • This is what you have allowed county government to do to them, and these photos merely scratch the surface. 
  • Do you want a better world for our children? 
  • Tell the county government that you are willing to pay for it. 

Fully fund Cecil County Public Schools—because, honestly, you should be fed up with this by now.







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