4:16 PM 10/8/1996

Overcrowded, aging facilities a growing problem

Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle

[Drip]The experts say sizing up a school building is a lot like checking out a used car. Newer is usually better than older, and low mileage better than high. But much depends on how the car was used, and how it was cared for.

In the case of schools, that means some of the Houston area's oldest aren't its worst, and some of its newest may not be its best -- or, at least, won't be for long -- because of hard use and limited upkeep.

The Houston district will spend $41 million to care for buildings and grounds during the current school year, $500,000 more than last year. In addition, this year's budget includes a one-time allocation of $39 million for emergency roof repairs at dozens of schools.

Just how much money the district truly needs for maintenance (and everything else, for that matter) is open to debate --and disagreement -- among school officials, trustees, patrons and taxpayers.

At the same time, it is fair to wonder what role spending on maintenance in years past may have played in last summer's collapse of a rickety cafeteria roof at 45-year-old Houston Gardens Elementary School.

Was the fallen roof the victim of bad upkeep? Bad construction? Bad luck? School officials say the answer is not yet clear.

What is clear is that HISD faces a fundamental problem: Its enrollment is growing, it operates a lot of aging schools, and it cannot give them all the kind of prompt and thorough maintenance they require.

The main symptoms of the problem are crowded schools, the long-term use of "temporary" buildings and delayed maintenance.

HISD's schools are the most crowded in the region, and its accumulation of 1,400 temporary buildings is easily the biggest. But packed classrooms and proliferating portables aren't solely Houston's headache.

Suburban districts face the same rising enrollment, and most are just as dependent on portables as HISD. For some, the big difference is that they have ample new bond money to spend on other solutions.

Humble and La Porte school district voters approved multimillion dollar bond issues Oct. 5.

In the Katy Independent School District, where enrollment climbed by 1,300 this fall to 26,600, officials sought approval of a $130 million bond program. Just two years ago, Katy voters OK'd a $90 million program, and officials concede they'll have to seek more bond funding in coming years.

The Katy system already has 15 elementaries, six junior highs, three high schools and two special campuses. The proposed new bond program would build more, including a new high school, and remodel several others.

Katy's first school, still in use as Katy High, went up 50 years ago. Its newest, Hayes Elementary, opened this fall. But climbing enrollment in recent years has required the addition of 60 temporary buildings.

To the south of KISD, the Fort Bend Independent School District grew by 2,000 students this fall to a total enrollment of 47,100. The students are distributed among 29 elementaries, nine middle schools, six high schools and three special campuses.

Fort Bend's oldest schools date back to the 1950s. Its newest, Burton Elementary, opened this fall. New campuses, including two elementaries and a high school, are to be built in the next couple of years thanks to a $140 million bond program passed in 1995.

Even so, the district still has to use 57 portables.

The Houston district has not enjoyed the same voter approval as Katy, Fort Bend and some other suburban districts. On May 28, HISD voters rejected the $390 million "Project Renewal - Phase B" bond program. That defeat dashed HISD officials' carefully drawn plans to overhaul aging and crowded schools.

Among other things, they lost bond funding that would have re-roofed Houston Gardens Elementary this school year.

Of course, that project has since begun, of necessity, and roof projects at eight other elementaries will be financed from a $39 million emergency roofing fund set aside after the Houston Gardens episode.

More than 60 other schools also need immediate roof repairs, according to HISD officials.

In a much anticipated audit of the district earlier this month, State Comptroller John Sharp recommended that HISD draw from its $100 million-plus fund balance to pay for some renovations originally slated for bond financing.

In terms of maintenance and repair, there is no shortage of priorities across HISD's 252-campus system.

Besides roofs, pressing problems include sagging ceilings and floors, overloaded wiring and decrepit air conditioning. Mixed in are countless broken lights, door closers, windowpanes, drinking fountains, toilets, sidewalks, drain pipes -- you name it.

Virtually every one of HISD's 182 elementaries, 38 middle schools, 26 high schools and 11 alternative and cooperative schools (such as its Middle College for Technical Careers, a joint venture with Houston Community College) was in line for attention under Renewal B.

Eighty-four campuses were singled out for significant repair and reconstruction work running into the hundreds of thousands -- even millions -- of dollars per school.

According to the final Renewal B project outline circulated last spring, the district has plenty of schools that arguably were outmoded a half-century ago but which, for lack of alternative, have been kept up and running.

For example, Harvard Elementary, the district's oldest campus, dates back to 1912 -- two years before the Panama Canal opened. Like the canal, the school is still in daily use.

The district also has at least one campus so new that it qualifies as bona fide state-of-the-art -- the 2-year-old Rice School, a southwest-side kindergarten-through-8th-grade campus with ties to Rice University.

The school is a showcase for cutting-edge teaching techniques, and rivals local commercial buildings in sheer splendor.

But within HISD old-tech is far more common than high-tech:

Of 177 elementaries HISD listed for Renewal B spending, only 15 were built this decade. Most were built in the 1950s and 1960s, but 34 date back to the 1910s and 1920s and another 17 to the 1930s and 1940s.

Seven of the district's 38 middle schools are from the 1910s and 1920s, and only two were built in the 1990s.

High schools run the gamut, too -- Davis and Milby, both of which date back to 1925, anchor one end of the scale, and the High School for Performing and Visual Arts, opened in 1980, occupies the other.

However, among general-enrollment high schools, only Jordan (1979) is comparatively new. Most of the rest date to the late 1920s, the mid-1930s, the 1950s and, in nine cases, the 1960s, when the leading edge of the baby boom generation began to hit high school.

Of course, age alone doesn't tell the whole story. At least as important is how heavily the school has been used. One sure route to building wear and tear is crowding. Most HISD schools are at capacity, if not beyond, and no end is in sight.

Demographers say crowding will persist across HISD for years to come. Projections for the year 2000 forecast almost 230,000 HISD students in a heavily minority district, with the greatest growth to come in the apartment-rich neighborhoods on the southwest side of the city.

According to HISD figures, two dozen elementary schools already have twice as many students as they were designed for, and one, Cunningham, is at three times its intended enrollment.

That kind of density brings all kinds of trouble: Toilets spring leaks three times as fast as they should. Door hinges work loose three times as fast. Kitchens have to crank out three times as many meals as they were designed to. Playground equipment gets three times the wear.

Cunningham, a middle-aged (1953) elementary just outside the Loop on the southwest side of Houston, originally was designed for 500 students. As recently as 1991, it was struggling with 1,400.

At that time the school used 50 temporary (portable or, as they're known, T-) buildings to provide 75 or so classrooms. Many more students had desks in portables than in the school's 16 regular classrooms.

Then in 1992 a reliever school -- Benavidez Elementary, with 42 regular classrooms -- was opened nearby, siphoning off about 700 students. Life at the school was again manageable.

But now Cunningham is back to 900 students, the majority in the 33 T-buildings still on site. Benavidez has ballooned to 1,200 and has eight portables. Some Benavidez students have gone to overflow classrooms elsewhere.

A new reliever school for the area died with the failed Renewal B bond vote, so more T-buildings at both schools are again on the horizon.

For the near term, Cunningham Principal Suzanne Sutherland is at peace with T-buildings. Her chief hope is that HISD will take care of the rooftop "ponding" and rotting eaves on the school's main building.

Other newer elementaries are in comparatively better shape, but they are traveling the same road to deterioration because of crowding.

At Anderson Elementary in the Westbury area of southwest Houston, Principal Mark Smith worries about the wear and tear being inflicted by a student population more than 50 percent greater than the school's designed capacity.

Built in 1960 for 600 students, Anderson added a wing in 1963 to handle another 300. This fall, 1,800 students showed up for class. After 300 were reassigned, the rest have settled into a daily regimen that features regular restroom lines and lunch periods starting at 9:45 a.m.

The crowding doesn't stop at elementary schools.

Welch Middle School handles 1,700 kids in 49 building classrooms and 33 T-buildings parked outside. That is 50 percent more enrollment than the school was designed for when it opened in 1979 on South Gessner in southwest Houston.

Each morning and afternoon, the driveway at Welch is jammed with buses and cars -- so many, in fact, that school officials are pushing hard for a new drive with a direly needed emergency vehicle lane.

Also on Principal Elizabeth Mosely's "to do" list:

The same kind of dings, dents and damage are showing up at high schools, where building use (and abuse) is more severe.

Sharpstown High building engineer Roscoe Ferguson says plumbing fixtures installed there when the campus was new in 1969 are about shot. Restrooms remodeled during Renewal A, passed by voters in 1989, already are posing regular problems for plumbers from HISD central maintenance.

The main building's central air conditioning is wearing out, and Ferguson says its design contributes to poor building ventilation. The 39 T-buildings next to the main building use window units, but some are already 15 years old and past replacement age. A few of the buildings are even older.

Sharpstown has more than half of its students going to class in portables. It has classes meeting in the library, and seven "floater" teachers without classrooms at all. For a while, students suspended from class had nowhere to be put but in the anteroom to Principal Luci Maggi's office.

Things will only get worse for Sharpstown in coming years -- a proposed new west-side "reliever" high school was a casualty of the failed May bond election.

Elsewhere, 59-year-old Austin High has more than 3,000 students (and 18 T-buildings) this fall. Milby High, 71 years old, has more than 3,600 students but only four portables thanks to expansion projects over the years.

One notable bright spot is Davis, which is the same age as Milby but much smaller. It exemplifies what is possible when an old building gets good maintenance and timely remodeling.

The 1,800-student high school on the predominantly Hispanic near-north side of Houston boasts gleaming terrazzo floors, high bright hallways, modern restrooms, new plumbing fixtures, new lockers, fresh paint, upgraded science labs and computer rooms, new cooling and heating, and an inviting new entryway, complete with stonework and pavers.

All the work came about through a $5.5 million investment from the Renewal A bond program. Still needed, though, are a library and cafeteria. A $6.7 million project to add them as yet another new wing on the school went down with Renewal B, says Principal Emily Cole.

For the near term, students will have to continue to use a city branch library across the street for reading and reference materials, and to share the cafeteria at Marshall Middle School, also across the street.

Conspicuously absent at Davis are T-buildings -- it has just three, only one in use as a regular classroom. A building wing added in the 1980s before Renewal A eliminated the need for an array of portables.