Years of putting off maintenance and upkeep at schools because of budget concerns has left the Palm Beach County School District with cracked caulking, unusable playing courts, broken equipment and other problems that need to be addressed, district and community leaders said Friday.
“Our schools, we are not able to maintain them,” Larry Clawson, principal of Palm Beach Gardens High, told members of the district’s volunteer Budget Advisory Committee. “We’re going to lose kids to charter schools because of that.”
As the committee searches for ways to cut spending and plug an estimated $35 million hole in next year’s capital budget, every department’s budget is getting scrutinized.
And on Friday, as the facilities department got its once-over, both staff and committee members seemed to think that perhaps the cuts from this department had gone far enough — if not too far.
“I look at Park Vista (High School), which is less than 10 years old. That facility right now looks like it’s 60 years old on the outside,” Clawson said. “I know we have to make cuts, but I think in the long run, we’re going to end up spending a lot more money.”
Jeffrey Eassa, principal of Woodlands Middle in suburban Lake Worth, said the school’s halls still have the original paint from when Woodlands was built in 1995.
“The building itself, I don’t want to say it looks run down. We do everything we can to make it look presentable. It needs attention. That attention just hasn’t been there,” Eassa said. He said his school isn’t as visually conducive to learning as some of the district’s newer schools.
“It does have a lot to do with learning,” Eassa said. He added that the conditions of the school’s buildings is of concern “because that’s what our community sees.”
“What you’re not seeing is the decay behind the walls and in the ceilings,” Jim Kunard, director of facilities services, said after hearing complaints from principals and committee members about the look of some of the district’s buildings. He added that “it’s painful for us” to have to defer maintenance while knowing it may mean more expensive and intrusive work later on.
District Treasurer Leanne Evans said the district understands the challenges with postponing maintenance, but the budget has dictated that the focus be on just making sure schools can keep running safely.
“We’re cognizant this is work that needs to be done. It’s a matter of priorities,” Evans said.
In 2011, the district laid off dozens of the custodians, repairmen and forepersons who help to maintain district schools in order to balance the operating budget. Included in the cuts were about 35 painters.
But Kunard said the district realized it “couldn’t stand the pain” of not having painters, so it hired eight of them back to handle some of the district’s graffiti and other immediate issues. That’s still not enough, he told the committee.
“We need help to paint the school. We need help to do the trash. We need help from the community,” said committee member Tracy Dickinson. “The money isn’t coming in anymore.”
She suggested that schools try to solicit help from parents and others in the community to pay for, or do some of the work that the district can’t afford to do.
The capitalbudget covers costs such as technology, transportation and maintenance. The decline in the county’s tax rolls, as well as a cut to the district’s ability to levy taxes for capital funds, has meant a nearly 40 percent drop in its funding over the past five years.
The district also is dealing with significant debt from building 85 schools in the past 12 years to meet enrollment demands. That debt is eating up three-quarters of the tax revenue that goes to the district’s capitalbudget.
The district was initially forecasting a nearly $60 million capital budget shortfall, but later trimmed that estimate to $35 million after, among other things, finding some extra money and with a plan to sell off a Jupiter Farms ranch once owned by actor Burt Reynolds.
The district used to be able to levy $2 for every $1,000 of taxable value in property taxes for capital needs, but in 2010 the Legislature lowered that to $1.50. The district is lobbying to restore some of that levy authority, but it’s unclear whether it will be successful.
The district anticipates having to cut out of its “basic needs” to get to a balanced capital budget this year. So the deferred maintenance and other deferred costs the district finds painful, such as holding off on buying buses, will have to continue.
“I realize we are kicking the can with a number of these … items,” committee chairman Ed Tancer said Friday. “Are we going to see improved conditions, whatever they may be, three or four years down the road, that would give us more head room?”
District staff didn’t answer.