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What is wrong with the people designing schools in California? Don’t they know the state is going broke? Despite having trouble paying teachers, they can afford to build a Taj Mahal school?
A few weeks ago I wrote that we need to support our infrastructure and, if necessary, we should raise taxes to fund that investment. The biggest complaint about my position came from readers who said they didn’t trust government, so they were against giving them more money, because they would only waste it. Los Angeles just proved their case.
In case you haven't heard, the city of Los Angeles recently unveiled its Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, a $578-million K-12 school built as a renovation of the old Ambassador Hotel -- where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated -- that will serve more than 4,000 students. It's the most expensive school ever built in the U.S.
In an Associated Press article about the school, Joe Agron, editor-in-chief of American School & University, a school construction journal, said, "There is no more of the old, windowless cinderblock schools of the '70s where kids felt, 'Oh, back to jail.'" Instead, he added, "Districts want a showpiece for the community, a really impressive environment for learning."
Sorry Joe, but that is all nonsense. Kids will complain they are returning to jail in most schools – not because of the building but the way they are taught and also that’s what kids do: complain about school. It’s part of growing up. We all did it.
However, as one of those underprivileged children that went to a cinderblock school – oh but we did have windows -- I never felt my education suffered. Further, more than 90% of my class went on to college, so I guess we did learn something. In fact, my fellow students were proud of our school – not because of the physical facility, but because of the people.
Of course, schools should be bright, cheerful, and have modern technology. But the aesthetics are not what make the school. In these tough times, we need to make sensible choices. The process should not be about the school board’s ego for creating a physical showpiece. Instead we need to focus on academics, not aesthetics.
The Associated Press article points out that, “Nationwide, dozens of schools have surpassed $100 million with amenities including atriums, orchestra-pit auditoriums, food courts, even bamboo nooks. The extravagance has led some to wonder where the line should be drawn and whether more money should be spent on teachers.”
What this country needs is a sensible, prioritized strategy for funding and building infrastructure, not a bunch of government officials that are spending money on excesses. “Architects and builders love this stuff, but there’s a little bit of a lack of discipline here,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund in Washington, D.C., remarked in the AP story about the L.A. school. It appears even some inside the tent agree with a more pragmatic approach.
I’m certainly not advocating building the cheapest possible building. Smart, energy-efficient designs have significant economic payback. Well-constructed schools have less maintenance costs. Modern technology improves learning. The point is that government must learn to live within a budget, and that means the total budget.
Ted Garrison is a construction industry expert and civil engineer with more than 25 years of construction experience. During the last 12 years, he has authored Strategic Planning for Contractors and co-authored five other books on marketing, sales, customer service and leadership. Garrison also is the host of the Internet radio program, New Construction Strategies, www.NCS30.com, where he conducts weekly interviews of experts within the construction industry. He can be reached at Ted@TedGarrison.com or you can follow him on Twitter @TedGarrison