ERIC Identifier: ED459970
Publication Date: 2001-12-00
Author: Lawrence, Barbara Kent
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Effects of State Policies on Facilities Planning and
Construction in Rural Districts. ERIC Digest.
Rural districts face challenges in maintaining, renovating, and building
school facilities. Policies governing this work can greatly affect funding, the
size and location of school facilities, and interaction between schools and
communities. Administrators, school boards, and communities considering
facilities projects should review local and state policies to identify areas of
flexibility and explore their options (Lawrence, 2002a). This Digest identifies
significant facilities policies and ways they can affect rural schools and
CONDITION OF SCHOOL FACILITIES IN RURAL AREAS
information is available on the condition of school facilities, and existing
studies, though often quoted, are problematic. Some are now outdated and were
based on data collected in ways that hindered comparisons (e.g., GAO, 1995,
1996). Others, though more recent, were based on data from a very small sample
(Lewis et al., 2000); used estimated data for some states, not differentiating
among urban, suburban, and rural districts (NEA, 2000); or as with American
School and University's annual reports on maintenance and construction (Agron,
2001a, 2001b), grouped states by region, blurring the characteristics of rural,
urban, and suburban schools.
That said, a review of existing reports suggests that schools in rural areas
and small towns are in only slightly better condition than urban schools and
that local economies affect their condition. In 1996 the GAO found that 51.7% of
rural schools had at least one inadequate building feature. NCES reported that
staff from 78% of rural schools expressed the need to spend money on repairs,
renovations, and modernization. Rural schools were also more likely to report at
least one environmental condition as unsatisfactory (Lewis et al., 2000, v,
STATE AND FEDERAL FUNDING MECHANISMS
State mechanisms for
funding school facilities vary. Only two states (AZ & HI) fund 100% of
school facilities projects at the state level. Eleven states offer no direct
funding, while the remaining states fund through a variety of channels: flat
grants, per pupil allocations, sliding scale grants or loans based on property
wealth, or a basic needs formula. Some (e.g., SC) use several funding programs
to give districts different ways to qualify.
In most states, the district is primarily responsible for funding facilities.
The usual methods of raising money (property tax, bonds, lotteries, and federal
leases) can have consequences for rural districts. For example, Georgia permits
use of a local sales tax, but this option raises little revenue in those
districts with few businesses (ECS, 1995).
In states that assign districts full funding responsibility, poor rural
districts face daunting challenges. It is no coincidence that rural districts
have taken a leading role in filing equity and adequacy suits based, in part, on
the declining condition of school facilities (cf. AK, AZ, CO, NC, OH, WV).
Six states (AZ, DE, KY, NC, OH, WV) have separate centralized school
facilities authorities. Most states, however, distribute funds through offices
within their departments of education (Clarke, 2000). Though state officials may
be eager to help rural communities, their ability to do so can be curtailed by
state policy. For example, when the North Carolina legislature cut staffing in
the state facilities office by about 50%, some urban districts with larger
staffs were able to apply for funding more aggressively than their rural
neighbors, who had relied on the state office for assistance.
Limited federal funding is available for new school facilities, largely from
the Department of Agriculture's Office of Community Development and the Rural
Economic Area Partnership. Two small Department of Education programs--the
Emergency Repair and Renovation Grants and Qualified Zone Academy Bonds
(QZAB)--help fund renovations. Both programs base their assistance on the number
of students eligible for free or reduced lunch (see "Other Resources" at the end
of this Digest). Although the Emergency Repair and Renovation program assures
that rural districts receive a fair share of funds, QZAB funding in some states
has gone disproportionately to urban districts.
STATE POLICIES IMPACTING SCHOOL FACILITIES IN RURAL
State policies can affect rural school facilities in several ways.
Policies requiring a specific percentage of growth or decline in student
population, or setting a minimum number of students as a prerequisite for
funding, can negatively affect rural districts. For example, West Virginia
requires elementary schools to house at least 300 students; high schools must
have 800 (grades 9-12). Ohio schools must serve at least 350. Such policies,
designed to achieve economies of scale, ignore the many diseconomies of
large-scale facilities and often force consolidation of small rural schools
(Lawrence, 2001). In Georgia, districts must demonstrate projected growth to
qualify for some state facilities funding programs. In Alaska, a district with
fewer than a certain number of students cannot build a full-size gymnasium.
Some states (VT, MT, WY) offer supplemental funding for rural and isolated
schools. However, in many small rural districts, loss of population has eroded
the local tax base, and taxpayers are reluctant to pass bonds to build schools.
Population influx, usually viewed as positive, can challenge rural schools.
Growth can increase property tax income but compel the community to take on more
debt to house new students. Some districts in rural North Carolina must use
portable classrooms to accommodate children from military bases, as federal
impact aid does not cover school facilities for these children.
State policies that require substantial acreage for school facilities may
force districts to select sites away from population centers, promoting sprawl,
occupying what was open or agricultural land, and creating large schools
dependent on buses and automobiles. Even if the land is donated, bringing water,
sewer, power, and roads to the site can be an expensive undertaking (Beaumont,
Maintenance is usually the largest--sometimes the only--discretionary item in
a school budget. Few states fund maintenance, so districts often defer needed
work, which can result in costly repairs or loss of buildings. Though a few
states do fund maintenance, across the nation 2000 marked the fourth consecutive
year that the percentage of school funding allocated for maintenance shrank
As schools deteriorate, districts must choose between renovation and new
construction. The oft-quoted statistic that America's schools average 42 years
of age is misleading because schools dating from the early 1900s were built to
last at least 75 years, while those built later were not as well constructed. It
may be wiser to renovate well-built older schools than newer ones. Quality of
original construction, maintenance, and renovation are better criteria for
In several states, districts are ineligible for renovation funding if
estimated costs exceed a specified portion of new construction costs, usually
between 50% and 80% (Rubman, 2000; Lawrence, 2002b). However, estimates may
exclude the value of the existing buildings, land, and infrastructure, as well
as intangible assets (e.g., status as a community hub). Some states (MD, ME, PA,
VT), now support renovation. In others, architects and members of the community
have convinced officials to permit renovation despite exceeding the prescribed
cost formula. Fine examples of updated facilities that preserve the character of
school and community include the McClain School in Greenfield (OH) (Hawkins,
2000) and Thirman L. Milner School in Hartford (CT) (Uline, 2000).
Building codes and regulations may also limit choices. Surprisingly,
departments of education may interpret these codes and regulations more
stringently than the regulatory agencies. Decision makers should explore how the
code applies and whether leeway can be granted (Beaumont, 2000).
Some states require an approved facility design. However, adapting a site to
a plan instead of creating a plan for a site may incur excessive costs. And
ignoring potential environmental benefits inherent in a site (such as natural
lighting, heating, or cooling) increases long-term utility costs. Using locally
available materials can reduce costs and give a building a local identity that
is impossible in preapproved plans (Maine, 2000).
Most state policies neither encourage
or discourage community participation in planning school facilities, nor do they
address ways communities can share use of the facilities. Local policy, stated
or implicit, may determine how these occur. Yet, it is advisable to encourage
community participation in planning a school facility and identifying ways the
community can share in its use, particularly in rural places, where the school
is often the largest public building. Designing with the community helps assure
support and long-term investment in the facility. For valuable information see "Schools as Centers of Community" (Bingler & Quinn, 2000).
Policies greatly affect the decisions rural
districts make about building or renovating school facilities. It is important
that people involved with a school facilities project know the policies that
pertain to their locality, assess their impact, and explore all options for
creating a school that serves everyone in the community.
Agron, J. (2001a). Building for the boom.
(27th annual official education construction report.) American School & University, 73(9), 22-44.
Agron, J. (2001b). Dwindling support. (Maintenance and operations cost study,
30th annual report.) American School & University, 73(8), 24,26-28,30,32.
Beaumont, C. E. (2000). Historic neighborhood schools in the age of sprawl:
Why Johnny can't walk to school. Washington, DC: National Trust for Historic
Preservation. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 450 557)
Bingler, S., & Quinn, L. (2000). Schools as centers of community: A
citizen's guide for planning and design. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of
Education. Retrieved December 20, 2001, from
Clarke, T. (2000). Building America's schools: State efforts to address
school facility needs. Washington, DC: National Governors Association, Education
Policy Studies Division.
Education Commission of the States (ECS). (1995). Finance: School facility
policies. ECS StateNotes: Finance--Capital Construction. Denver, CO: Author.
General Accounting Office (GAO). (1995). School facilities: Condition of
America's schools (GAO/HEHS-95-61). Washington, DC: Author.
General Accounting Office (GAO). (1996). Profiles of school conditions by
state (GAO/HEHS-96-148). Washington, DC: Author.
Hawkins, B. L. (2000). Public school A-B-C's. Facilities Design and
Management, 19(9), 44-48.
Lawrence, B. K. (2001) Memos on state policy regarding school size, acreage
requirements. Washington, DC: Rural School and Community Trust.
Lawrence, B. K. (2002a). Lowering the overhead by raising the roof and other
strategies to reduce the cost of your small school facility. Washington, DC:
Rural School and Community Trust.
Lawrence, B. K. (2002b). Save a penny, lose a school: The vicious circle of
deferred maintenance. Washington, DC: Rural School and Community Trust.
Lewis, L., Snow, K., Farris, E., Smerdon, B., Cronen, S., & Kaplan, J.
(2000). Condition of America's public school facilities, 1999. Statistical
analysis report. (NCES-2000-032). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education,
Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education
Maine Department of Education. (2000). The ABCs of school site selection.
Augusta: Maine Department of Education, State Planning Office.
National Education Association (NEA). (2000). Modernizing our schools: What
will it cost? Washington, DC: Author. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED
Rubman, K. (2000). A community guide to saving older schools. Washington, DC:
National Trust for Historic Preservation. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service
No. ED 449 651)
Uline, C. L. (2000). Decent facilities and learning: Thirman A. Milner
elementary school and beyond. Teachers College Record, 102(2), 442-60. OTHER
Education Commission of the States (ECS). (2000). School finance litigation.
Denver, CO: Author. Retrieved December 20, 2001, from
Education Commission of the States (ECS). (2000). Selected state policies:
1999-2000. ECS StateNotes. Denver, CO: Author.
General Accounting Office (GAO). (2000). School facilities: Construction
expenditures have grown significantly in recent years (GAO/HEHS-00-41).
Washington, DC: Author.
Harmon, H., Howley, C., Smith, C., & Dickens, B. (1998). Planning schools
for rural communities [online]. Charleston, WV: AEL, Inc., Rural Center.
Retrieved December 20, 2001, from http://www.ael.org/rel/rural/pdf/planning.pdf%20
Rural School and Community Trust. (n.d.). School facilities: Resources and
connections. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved December 20, 2001, from
Sandham, J. L. (2001, June). Building a new role: States and school
facilities (special report). Education Week [online edition]. Retrieved December
20, 2001, from
U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2000). Office of Community Development [home
page]. Retrieved December 20, 2001, from
U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2000). Rural economic area partnership
(REAP) zones. Retrieved December 20, 2001, from
U.S. Department of Education. (2000). Qualified zone academy bonds (QZAB).
Retrieved December 20, 2001, from
U.S. Department of Education. (2000). School renovation, IDEA and technology
grants fact sheet. Urgent School Renovation Grants. Retrieved December 20, 2001,