Education Support Professionals On the Front Lines in Fight for School Modernization
By John Rosales
After a particularly snowy night in January, paraeducator Lynn Witts found herself zigzagging around water buckets the next morning as she walked the hallways at Polson High School in Montana.
“The snow melted and we had buckets everywhere,” she says. While winter brings it share of snow and ice to challenge the school’s 35-year-old flat, leaky roof, it is the almost-daily showers of spring that Witts fears most.
“When the roof leaks, wiring can get wet so breakers need to be shut off,” Witts says. “It just isn’t a real conducive learning environment.”
When a pipe burst last October at Welch Elementary School in Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, hot water flooded an entire section of the second floor running down walls like a slow-moving brook. Power had to be shut off.
“We dismissed everyone from the parking lot,” says Jossette Threatts, a paraeducator. “The teachers and paras remained calm so as not to upset students, but the level of frustration varied among us after all the children were gone.”
The school, built in the mid-1960s, was also the scene of a recent gas leak that caused an evacuation while many students were sitting at computers taking state required tests.
“Those are the kinds of things that happen at an old school,” says Threatts. “That’s why Congress should pass the FAST Act (Fix America’s Schools Today), to make schools cleaner and safer.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics, the average age of public school buildings is 42 years, with almost half (45 percent) being built between 1950 and 1969.
Antiquated school buildings like those at Welch and Polson are why the National Education Association (NEA) is urging Congress to pass the FAST Act, which would provide $30 billion in assistance for the modernization and repair of elementary and secondary school buildings and community colleges. However, the legislation remains stalled in Congress.
Paraeducator Lynn Witts talks about the urgent need for school modernization
Last year, when the U.S. Senate failed to move forward on President Obama’s American Jobs Act, Obama agreed to work with Congress on breaking up the measure and passing proposals on a piece-by-piece basis. Last September, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced the FAST Act on the Senate floor, which would put up to 400,000 educators back to work and modernize 35,000 aging public schools and community colleges. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) introduced the bill in the House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, in Camden, Arkansas, water leaks are a continuing issue at Camden Fairview Intermediate School. Stephone Avery, head custodian, says in addition to a leaky roof, the 37-year-old school has an outdated telephone system, time-worn ventilation units, and the usual old carpets and doors found at many schools.
“Old doors lead to air loss, higher energy bills, and security problems,” Avery says. “Old carpet causes allergies, is a trip hazard, and a nesting place for bugs. Something has to be done.”
Last August, when Hurricane Irene hit Hopatcong, New Jersey, the school district’s five schools suffered more damage from heavy winds and rain than expected due to disintegrating plaster that should have been replaced years before.
“Existing masonry issues at two of our schools were exacerbated due to the heavy rains,” says Stacy Yanko, a library assistant at Durban Avenue and Tulsa Trail Elementary Schools. “This resulted in additional water intrusion in the high school gymnasium and auditorium.”
At Durban Avenue, Yanko says ceiling leaks were quickly addressed, though excess moisture at the Tulsa Trail library may be causing a musty smell and contributing to poor air quality.
“Congress must pass the FAST Act,” she says. “Everyone should have the right and opportunity to teach, work and learn in a clean, healthy and up-to-date environment.”
Yanko says Hopatcong like many school districts across the country is coping with drastic budget cuts that often cause school officials to postpone desperately-needed repairs.
“They want to make repairs and necessary updates, but with funding to schools being cut at every level, it is almost impossible,” she says. “We cannot afford for the FAST Act to be defeated. How can we serve students with outdated, substandard facilities and equipment?”