Sweating the small stuff: PBC schools battle years of campus decay

Dwyer High School Principal Joe DePasquale still winces as he recalls the big air-conditioner meltdown two months ago.

Just days before an orientation for incoming freshmen and parents, alarmed staffers at the Palm Beach Gardens school discovered that the cooling system had stopped working in the theater. The cavernous room, where parents would get their first up-close introduction to their children’s new high school, was sweltering in the mid-August heat.

“It was unbearable in there,” DePasquale recalled recently.

A frantic scramble by maintenance workers got the system up and running in time for the event, and – for a day at least – a crisis was averted. But since then the school has been in a weekly battle with an aging and fickle, garage-sized A/C, which can leave students sweating in some classrooms while adjacent classrooms are frigid.

“I’ve had to move some people out of classrooms,” DePasquale said. “The whole system needs to be overhauled.”

It’s the same story at public schools across Palm Beach County, as the school district struggles to keep teaching amid roofs, air-conditioners and furniture that have surpassed their life expectancy.

While fresh coats of paint and green landscaping keep the county’s schools looking orderly, walls teem with mold, roofs leak, air-conditioners blow hot, aging bleachers creak, outdated computer crash, buses break down, and students squeeze into decades-old desks.

Burdened by old construction debt, pinched by the Great Recession’s tax shortfalls and squeezed by a state-mandated property tax cut, the county’s public schools say they have found it impossible to keep up with needed repairs and replacements. Each year, administrators say, the problems get worse.

“It takes a lot to stay on top of it,” said Craig Singletary, the school district’s facility management administrator. “Financially we’ve been keeping it going, but we’re not getting ahead of the curve.”

Complaints about the gradual decaying of the county’s school facilities are hardly new, but they’re receiving renewed attention as the school district gins up awareness in advance of next month’s vote on whether to raise the sales tax countywide to 7 percent.

If approved, the decade-long tax hike would infuse the county’s public school system with $1.4 billion over 10 years, with most of it used for repairs, upgrades, new materials and new construction.

The push comes roughly two decades after the public school system’s last big construction boom. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the school district oversaw the construction or remodeling of more than 100 schools, and officials say many of the key components of those once-gleaming campuses are outdated or at the end of their useful lifespans.

The Great Recession hit as facilities began to age, meaning drops in sales tax and property tax revenues that prompted severe budget cuts across Florida.

On top of that, the Legislature, hoping to give residents some tax relief, in 2009 cut back on the amount of money that school districts could raise from property taxes for construction and maintenance.

The one-two punch meant a severe drop in the amount of money that the schools spend each year on upkeep and replacements. Between 2008 and 2016, the school district says its maintenance budget shrunk by 20 percent and the number of maintenance workers fell from 634 to 382.

Meanwhile, the school district is still paying more than $140 million a year in debt from its big construction boom

Today, many schools are inundated with rusted doors, cracked stucco, leaky windows, termite-ravaged gym floors, unsafe playgrounds, corroded bleachers and buckling fences. All told, district officials estimate that the county’s 196 campuses and facilities need more than $1 billion in maintenance, repairs and reconstruction.

To make the fixes, educators are banking on money from the sales tax hike. If approved, they plan to spend about $95 million just on new plumbing and $210 million just on new air-conditioners. At least 150 schools are set for roof repairs or replacements.

While they await a verdict from the voters, students, teachers and administrators continue with the years-long improvisation around the disruptions, discomforts and inconveniences created by their aging buildings.

One of the hardest fought battles against time is taking place at Boca Raton’s Addison Mizner Elementary.

Built in 1966, it is among the oldest school campus still standing in the district, and it’s showing its age in a not-so-graceful, sometimes leaky, always crowded way. It is among seven schools due to be completely replaced should the sales tax go through.

“On a daily basis the A/C is out,” Principal Kelly Burke says. “We were out five of the first eight school days in the building I’m in, the one that houses music and the first grade. Plumbing is always an issue. It’s just old.”

Burke says maintenance workers and parent volunteers do their best to make the low-slung, flat-roofed buildings welcoming. Every summer, she picks another building and has the volunteers give it a new count of paint

But the paint job doesn’t prevent the classroom shuffle that happens when the air conditioning goes down in one room and teacher and students must migrate to another.

At Mizner Elementary, not only are the buildings old, the campus design is outdated by today’s standards.

Mizner’s cafeteria doubles as its auditorium and is small by district standards, with room for only 250 people at a time. For schoolwide presentations, the nearly 800 students have to attend in shifts. Chorus concerts, talent shows, and fifth-grade graduation have to be held at nearby Boca Raton High.

“The parents, they love this school. It’s very quaint. That’s the part that is sad,” said Burke, who came five years ago to Mizner, a neighborhood school tucked among homes south of Palmetto Park Road and east of Interstate 95.

“It’s like a legend in Boca,” she said. “But something has to be done. They can’t keep putting Band-Aids on things.”

One dynamic that school district leaders are grappling with in their sales pitch to voters is that school campuses often don’t look bad. Fresh paint, attractive landscaping, trimmed lawns – they make many campuses seem, if not sleek and shiny, at least staid and stable.

Take Grove Park Elementary, a campus west of Riviera Beach that, like Addison Mizner, was built in 1966. There, the campus’ tidiness belies rampant problems beneath the surface.

The ceiling grids are rusting, the walls bear mold-enticing structural cracks. The bathrooms are too narrow for wheelchairs to pass. Rust flakes fall off of water pipes so often that maintenance workers have to be dispatched once a week to empty the filters.

“That’s one of the issues we have,” said Dan Hughes, the district’s facility management coordinator. “This school doesn’t look that bad. It’s those hidden little ghosts you don’t see.”

The costs of replacements often cause sticker shock to the PTA boards that mull paying for fixes on their own. At Dwyer, replacing the auditorium’s battered stage curtain would cost an estimated $20,000, officials say. A new playground for Grove Park could run as high as $150,000.

As facilities age and the need for upkeep increases, the district’s maintenance workers have been stretched so thin that many principals have learned to not bother asking for small repairs. The maintenance crew won’t even come out for the small stuff, they say.

At Dwyer, volunteers from a booster club have taken the handling maintenance of the baseball field. At Addison, volunteers paint school buildings each summer.

Walking through Dwyer’s hallways, DePasquale looks around a courtyard and points out a key contradiction.

One of the school district’s crowned jewels when it opened in 1990, Dwyer High is now 26 years old. More than two decades after it was built, the campus looks sleek, well-kept, even modern.

“I look at the school, it’s a beautiful building,” he said. “It’s not falling down by any stretch of the imagination. But there are things you can’t see.”

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