NEWS

Schools falling apart: Leaky roofs, mold, rotting wood, poor air quality

Don Conkey

Superintendents in 12 South Shore school districts have admitted that 34 schools under their charge have grave structural and mechanical problems “seriously jeopardizing the health and safety” of thousands of students.

Not only haven’t school administrators hid this assertion, they’ve publicized it to try to get funding from the state. In “statements of interest” to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, they labeled their projects as “Priority 1.” By so doing, they stated that all or part of these academic buildings were “structurally unsound or otherwise,” with conditions so bad that they threatened the well-being of those unlucky enough to work or learn inside of them.

The problems in these schools run the gamut from ungrounded electrical sockets in Braintree to asbestos in Stoughton. Poor air ventilation is one of the most pervasive concerns as are plumbing problems and infestations of mold.

It’s common for temperatures to vary widely, from classroom to classroom. Students and teachers in many schools – like the 13 local ones identified in “statements of interest” filed with the state – often must work around buckets placed on the floor and by windows to catch leaking rain water.

The building authority received a flood of requests last year from communities in need of upgrading crumbling schools, ending a five-year moratorium on state funding.

“I’m not surprised at all that there are that many schools,” Rockland School Superintendent John Retchless said. “Gov. (Mitt) Romney reduced local aid in 2003, and schools have been under funded since then.”

Rockland is one of the lucky ones, on track to get funding for Rogers Middle School; if all goes to plan, its replacement could open in 2012. The money came after school administrators laid out its problems – from decaying walls to out-of-code exhaust systems to persistent leaks – in detail.

“The bottom line is that the (School Building Authority) identified 83 school districts” to fund, said Retchless, justifying the move to hold nothing back in stating the school’s problems. “You’re going to get one kick at the can.”

Yet many schools with pressing structural and safety concerns did not get a share of the funding pie. Thus, they are left with a bleak public record of the dangers in their schools – buildings that, despite such problems, still house students every day.

And, while no decisions have been made, the prospects of them getting future funding seems increasingly tenuous, given sagging tax revenues and a slow economy.

Gov. Deval Patrick said Thursday that state revenues were $223 million behind projections in the first quarter of the state’s fiscal year, prompting a wave of immediate budget cuts.

“I believe they are a signal of worse news ahead,” he said. “As disruptive as these actions may be, the circumstances demand action.”

Don Conkey may be reached at dconkey@ledger.com.