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  • Writer's pictureJosh Veblen

The Costly Consequences of Deferred Maintenance in Schools

Updated: Jan 7

Approximately 28% of all U.S. public schools were built before 1950, 45% were built between 1950 and 1969, and 17% were built between 1970 and 1984. Only 10% were built after 1985. It’s no surprise then that schools across the U.S. are beginning to show their age—and not in a good way.

A recent study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 54% of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems—with 41% of districts needing to update or replace HVAC systems in several of their schools. While school districts clearly feel the pressure to invest in their aging facilities, maintaining school infrastructure is easier said than done. When times get tight, preventive maintenance can seem like a pipe dream. Many schools have no choice but to defer maintenance—prioritizing projects based on immediate necessity. (As of 2016, the deferred maintenance backlog for U.S. schools was $271 billion.)

This practice of postponing necessary repairs and upgrades can have severe consequences, compromising both the quality of education and the long-term financial sustainability of our educational institutions.

Impact on Learning Environments

Deferred maintenance negatively affects the learning environment within schools. For decades, educators, facility managers, and the media have documented the impact underinvestment in public schools has on educators and students.

Leaky roofs, malfunctioning HVAC systems, outdated electrical infrastructure, and inadequate water treatment contribute to poor indoor air quality, mold growth, and other environmental hazards that compromise the health and well-being of students and staff. In addition to the documented health issues, dilapidated facilities and aging infrastructure undermine student morale, motivation, and academic performance. (It’s worth noting here that a new report confirms that U.S. reading and math scores have now dropped to the lowest level in decades.)

Not surprisingly, deferred maintenance exacerbates educational inequalities. Schools serving disadvantaged communities often face more significant challenges in securing adequate funds for maintenance. This perpetuates a cycle of neglect—as students in these schools are further deprived of the healthy learning environment they deserve. A report conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that 41% of school districts with a high concentration of students living in poverty were forced to offer remote-only instruction during Covid, while only 24% of districts with a low concentration of students living in poverty were forced to close their doors.

Escalating Costs:

Minor maintenance issues left unaddressed can worsen over time, requiring more extensive repairs or complete replacements. Multiple studies show that deferred maintenance is a costly decision, resulting in only short-term gain and long-term loss. Recent FacilitiesNet research estimates that, on average, every dollar ‘saved’ by deferring maintenance, results in a four-dollar increase in future capital renewal costs.

Declining Asset Value

School buildings and infrastructure are valuable assets that require regular upkeep to retain their value. Deferred maintenance results in the deterioration of those assets. Neglected schools also create a negative impression on prospective students, parents, and the community, negatively impacting enrollment rates and public perception.

A Brighter Future

The responsibility of tackling deferred maintenance does not rest solely on the shoulders of educational institutions. Collaboration between government bodies, educational authorities, community organizations, and parents is crucial. But things are looking up. All around the U.S. cities and states have established funding programs to help school administrators address deferred maintenance. Additionally, billions of dollars from the Cares Act, the Coronavirus Relief Supplemental Act, the American Rescue Plan, and the Infrastructure Bill are available for school infrastructure improvements.

Next Steps

Deferred maintenance in schools jeopardizes student and staff health, well-being productivity, and safety. It also diminishes the quality of education and incurs avoidable long-term costs. A proven approach to tackling deferred maintenance projects should involve:

  • Auditing the facility to gain a thorough understanding of all required maintenance.

  • Identifying and separating deferred maintenance projects from ongoing maintenance requirements.

  • Prioritizing projects based on health and safety, operational efficiencies, costs to maintain, etc.

  • Establishing a comprehensive ongoing maintenance plan.

  • Investigating and securing all available funding and incentive programs.

  • Repeating annually.

(Of course, Alco Building Solutions can help with all of this, so a good first step would be to just give us a call.)

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