Kansas architecture, engineering and construction industry must step up efforts to support public education

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Marcel Harmon is an anthropologist, engineer and former member of the Lawrence School Board.

Eighty-five billion dollars – according to the 2021 State of Our Schools Reportthe amount of American underinvestment in school buildings and land that occurs each year.

Approximately one-third of this variance is attributed to maintenance and operating deficiencies, while the other two-thirds is attributed to unrealized but necessary capital improvements. For Kansas, this annual discrepancy is about $375 million, or $1.17 million per district on average.

The gap is not evenly distributed. Between 2009 and 2019, high-poverty districts spent 37 percent less than low-poverty districts on improving school facilities, and Hispanic and Latino, Black, and Native American students are disproportionately represented in these high-poverty schools. poverty.

Those of us in the architecture, engineering and construction (an umbrella term for those who provide building design and construction services) industry understand perhaps better than most what ‘Such underinvestment means for the health and well-being of students and teachers, for the long-term success of students. , for district operating costs and for greenhouse gas emissions.

This growing, unevenly distributed gap has grown from $46 billion in 2016 to $60 billion in 2020 dollars and is the result of multiple factors. More directly, it’s the result of rising construction costs, increased school district building inventory, and the fallout from lower facility spending due to the Great Recession. But other long-standing issues arguably have a greater effect, such as funding major capital improvements primarily through local property taxes (which disadvantage poorer urban and rural districts), under- general assessment of public education (communities failing to secure school bonds, chronic state underfunding, and school closures first during a pandemic), as well as direct attacks from conservative lawmakers, governors and anti-public education activists.

As a result, we are less likely to see Net Zero or regenerative school facilities optimized for student learning and health/wellbeing. We are less likely to see well-ventilated facilities, school gardens, neighborhood schools, green cleaning policies, use of renewable energy sources, a district-level sustainability director, or facilities department well trained and fully staffed.

When school districts struggle financially to provide basic services, pay living wages to uncertified staff, or simply fix roof leaks – when educators and school board members are threatened and harassed in the wake of mandates for masks or books that might make white, straight, and cisgender children uncomfortable — then sustainable, healthy school environments and communities become much less of a priority.

Frankly, talking about it at this time may even seem frivolous.

the direct attacks state legislators and public school advocates are particularly insidious in that they reflect an organized effort to weaken public education while benefiting private schools and other special interests, often using issues of culture war or crises like the Great Recession and pandemic to amplify their efforts.

In Lawrence, where I live, over the next year we will need to determine what combination of staff reductions, program restructuring/cuts, and neighborhood school closures will be made to address budget shortfalls. As a community, we have invested millions of dollars in these facilities over the past decade to create better learning environments for our children while reducing their operational impacts on the planet. But the higher cost per pupil of our small neighborhood schools makes them “inefficient”.

Kansas has a long history of public schools enduring such attacks, and this legislative session is no different. Two specific examples include House Bill 2550 (a “school choice” bill), which seeks to shift already limited funds from public education to private schools and House Bill 2662 (a “parents’ rights” bill), which seeks to take control of programs away from local school boards and educators, add extra work to staff, increase financial constraints, and discredit districts and teachers.

These and others anti-public education bills of this session and the last decade, combined with significant underfunding that will take years to recover from, have taken their toll. The pandemic has only exacerbated all of this, bringing many teachers, administrators, and districts to breaking point.

In Lawrence, where I live, over the next year we will need to determine what combination of staff reductions, program restructuring/cuts, and neighborhood school closures will be made to address budget shortfalls. As a community, we have invested millions of dollars in these facilities over the past decade to create better learning environments for our children while reducing their operational impacts on the planet. But the higher cost per pupil of our small neighborhood schools makes them “inefficient”.

The benefits to students and the community are not recognized by our market economy’s narrow definition of value, conservative lawmakers, or Kansas’ education funding formula. If the money isn’t there and our community is arguing over school closures, staff compensation/retention, classroom sizes, sports to be cut, and associated inequities, to what extent do you think- do you think the focus is on achieving net zero schools, optimizing indoor environmental quality or creating a sustainability director position?

Short answer, not close enough. Similar stories can be found in other communities in Kansas as well as in other states.

Those of us in the AEC industry need to step up. Presenting benefits to clients, attending or speaking at conferences, or serving on professional committees is not what I am talking about. You have to be much better defenders. You’re going to have to play politics and help put school districts and their communities in a better position to do these things. Politics and governance are intertwined, and the collective action and decision-making needed to achieve the desired goals above depends on both.

As companies, as professional organizations or industry alliances, as individuals, we need to work with and support politicians, unelected officials and organizations that share these same goals. We must demonstrably and verbally stand up to those who work against these goals.

Maybe it’s speaking up at school board meetings, city/county commission meetings, or engaging with your state and federal officials. This may include writing opinion pieces for newspapers or industry publications. Maybe it’s about taking a definitive public stance on a specific issue as a business or professional organization. Perhaps it is about refusing work that is not aligned with these goals or denying professional memberships to those who are actively working against said goals. Maybe he gets involved with other advocacy and good governance groups (there are plenty in Kansas alone, from General public coalition to the League of Women Voters of Kansas) or explore methods to generate collective action at multiple scales.

Maybe it’s just brave enough to have a one-on-one conversation with someone. Or maybe you are running for office yourself. And not just the city, state, or federal offices that everyone thinks of, but also the school board, precinct committee member, water district, or whatever. Be prepared to serve on a local or state body of which there are a multitude of options, from planning commission to housing boards.

If we don’t step up, advocate and act to support public education, then equitable access to sustainable, regenerative and healthy schools will be more the exception than the rule. This $85 billion gap will only widen and we will more easily lose all the ground previously gained.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own review, here.

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