Why Johnny Canít Breathe

Sick kids, wheezing teachers, baffled administrators: Minneapolis schools encounter trouble in the air

And though conventional wisdom might suggest that the oldest schools have the biggest problems, Baker and other experts say the worst air-quality dilemmas are actually found in newer buildings--especially the ones constructed back when Jimmy Carter wore his cardigan sweater around the White House. In the days of the energy crisis, explains Minneapolis Public Schools environmental health manager Ken Meyer, ventilation systems were designed to let in as little outside air as possible, allowing toxins like carbon monoxide to accumulate. Then there was the trend toward "schools without walls," where teachers convened class in the corners of a big open space: When the fad waned, open buildings were often carved up into smaller rooms without adequate ventilation.

Older schools didn't have those problems. In the days of profligate energy use, they had been equipped with massive ducts and fans. But those ventilation systems were also often insulated with asbestos, now recognized as a carcinogen. When school officials began an asbestos-cleanup program in the 1980s, Meyer says, they determined that it was too expensive to clean up every blower and vent. So they shut some of them down instead.

The biggest problem faced by people like Meyer, however, has nothing to do with the way the schools were built: It stems from the way they've been kept up since. "Deferred maintenance" has come to be a major buzzword in engineering circles, explains Don Haydon, the Minneapolis Public Schools' director of finance and operations. "Deferred maintenance is very common in any public infrastructure system," he says. "When the decisions are between books and computers and fixing the building, it usually goes to books and computers. The work doesn't get done, and it has a tendency to accumulate. Something like a roof deteriorating will eventually allow water to enter, and that tends to cause further problems. It just gets worse."

Brian Stauffer

According to the Maintenance and Operations Cost Study, a national survey conducted annually by the Kansas-based magazine American School & University, deferred maintenance constitutes "a crisis situation" in most U.S. public schools. The report says the problem is especially severe in large cities, where perennial budget troubles have cut down on bricks-and-mortar spending: "Urban school districts spend on average about 3.5 percent of their budget on facilities maintenance compared to a nationwide average of 9.4 percent." (In Minneapolis, the maintenance budget currently amounts to $10 million, or 2.6 percent of the $400 million operating and capital renewal budget.) Nationally, says the report, some 85 percent of maintenance dollars goes to urgent repairs--things like bursting boilers and other emergency fixes--rather than ongoing maintenance. And thus small leaks turn into bigger, more expensive ones. Tiny cracks become massive masonry problems. Mold spots here and there spawn a full-blown infestation.

In Minneapolis, administrators began tallying deferred-maintenance problems in 1992; the result was a catalog of needed repairs filling two shelves' worth of ring binders and including everything from roof and window replacements to tuckpointing, ventilation, boilers, and parking lots. The total price tag was close to $300 million--far more than the district could hope to come up with from its regular budget.

The district did what any homeowner would do when faced with a massive repair bill: It took out debt. In 1993 the state Legislature gave Minneapolis the authority to sell bonds for renovation projects. Soon afterward the district kicked off a two-part plan involving some $280 million in expenditures. Phase I, which began in 1995 and ran through this year, spent $158 million on fixes designed chiefly for fire-code compliance and accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Phase II, begun this year and slated for completion in 2002, calls for $120 million worth of repairs, with an emphasis on deferred maintenance and air quality.

"Five years ago air quality wasn't something that school districts focused on," explains Setter, the district's environmental health specialist. "Now we hear about it every day, and we're forced to deal with the consequences. We don't want schools closing down because there's the fear of an indoor-air-quality problem. We can't afford that."

Not that it hasn't happened. In the past few years, schools from rural Ortonville and Willmar to suburban Farmington, Roseville, and Crooked Lake have been shut down, sometimes for months, because of problems with mold, carbon monoxide, bacterial contamination, and the like. In fact, says Phil Allmon, health and safety coordinator for the Department of Children, Families, and Learning, Minneapolis seems to be doing better than most other districts: For one thing, he notes, it has seven staffers in charge of environmental health and safety, while his statewide unit boasts "a staff of one: me." Part of his job is to review district requests for special state funds to fix environmental health emergencies. In the past two years, the state has handed out $2 million annually for such projects.

Still, Allmon says, the magnitude of the problem is barely beginning to become apparent, especially in districts where the majority of schools date from the airtight Seventies. "It's safe to say that of the 1,600-some-odd buildings in the state, there are certainly 100 with serious indoor-air-quality issues," Allmon estimates. "We have a ways to go yet." Allmon and other state staffers are reviewing a legislative proposal authored by state representative Kathy Tingelstad, a Republican from Andover, that would require school districts to install state-of-the-art air-filtration systems in every building and mandate periodic ventilation upgrades in "portable classrooms"--the trailers in which many growing districts house their burgeoning student populations.

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