Kansas architecture, engineering and construction industry must step up to support public education (Column) – The Lawrence Times


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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Marcel Harmon is an anthropologist, engineer and former Lawrence school board member. 

Note: This piece was originally published by the Reflector on March 10.

Eighty-five billion dollars – according to the State of Our Schools 2021 report, that’s the amount of U.S. underinvestment in school buildings and grounds that occurs each year.

Roughly one-third of that gap is attributed to maintenance and operations deficiencies, while the other two-thirds is attributed to unrealized but needed capital improvements. For Kansas, that annual gap is approximately $375 million – or $1.17 million per district on average.

The gap isn’t equitably distributed. Between 2009 and 2019, high-poverty districts spent 37% less than low-poverty districts on school facility improvements, and Hispanic and Latino, Black, and Native American students are disproportionately represented in these high-poverty schools.

Those of us in the architecture, engineering and construction industry (an umbrella term for those providing building design and construction services) perhaps understand more than most what such underinvestment means for the health and wellness of students and teachers, for students’ long-term success, for district operational costs, and for greenhouse gas emissions.

This inequitably distributed, growing gap increased from $46 billion in 2016 — $60 billion in 2020 dollars — and is the result of multiple factors. More directly it’s the result of increasing construction costs, increasing school district building inventory, and the fallout from declining facility expenditures due to the Great Recession. But other long-running issues arguably have a greater effect, such as funding major capital improvements primarily through local property taxes (which works against poorer urban and rural districts), a general undervaluing of public education (communities failing to pass school bonds, chronic underfunding from the state and closing schools first during a pandemic), as well as direct attacks from conservative legislators, governors and anti-public education activists.

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

When school districts struggle financially to provide basic services, pay a living wage to non-certified staff, or just repair roof leaks – when educators and school board members are being threatened and harassed as a result of mask mandates or books that might make white, straight, cisgender kids uncomfortable – then sustainable, healthy school environments and communities become much less of a priority. 

Frankly, bringing it up at that point can even seem frivolous.

The direct attacks from state legislators and anti-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 culture war issues or crises like the Great Recession and the pandemic to amplify their efforts.

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 public education dollars to private schools and House Bill 2662 (a “parents rights” bill), which seeks to take curriculum control away from local school boards and educators, add additional work to staff, increase financial strain, and discredit districts and teachers.

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

In Lawrence, where I live, over the next year we are faced with determining what mix of staffing cuts, program restructuring/cuts, and closing neighborhood schools will be done to address budget shortfalls. As a community we’ve invested millions of dollars in these facilities over the last decade to create better learning environments for our kids while reducing their operational impacts on the planet. But the higher cost per student for our smaller, neighborhood schools makes them “inefficient.”

The student and community benefits aren’t recognized by our free-market economy’s narrow definition of value, conservative legislators or Kansas’s education funding formula. If the money isn’t there, and our community is arguing about closing schools, staff pay/retention, classroom size, what sports to cut and associated inequities, how much focus do you think is given to achieving net zero schools, optimizing indoor environmental quality, or creating a sustainability director position?

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

Those of us in the AEC industry must step up. Laying out the benefits to clients, attending or speaking at conferences, or serving on professional committees isn’t what I’m talking about. You must be significantly better advocates. You’re going to have to get political and help put school districts and their communities in a better position for doing these things. Politics and governing are intertwined, and the collective action and decision-making needed to achieve the above desired goals hinges on both.

As businesses, as professional organizations or industry alliances, as individuals, we must work with and support politicians, non-elected officials and organizations who share these same goals. We must visibly and vocally stand up to those who are working against these goals. 

Maybe it’s speaking out at school board meetings, city/county commission meetings, or engaging with your state and federal representatives. Maybe it’s writing opinion pieces for newspapers or industry publications. Maybe it’s taking a definitive, public stance on a specific issue as a business or professional organization. Maybe it’s refusing work not aligned with these goals or refusing professional memberships to those actively working against said goals. Maybe it’s getting involved with other advocacy and good governance groups (there are many in Kansas alone, from the Mainstream Coalition to the League of Women Voters of Kansas) or exploring methods to generate collective action at multiple scales.

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

If we don’t step up, advocate, and take action to support public education, then equitable access to sustainable, regenerative, healthy schools will be more the exception than the rule. That $85 billion gap will only get wider, and we’ll more easily lose any ground previously gained.

— Marcel Harmon, an anthropologist, engineer and former Lawrence school board member, leads the research and development services of BranchPattern, a high performance building consulting firm. He often writes social commentary incorporating insights from anthropology and evolutionary theory.

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 commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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