In recent weeks a handful of schools in Baltimore closed after a rash of failures in building heating systems, and the state government stepped in with $2.5 million in emergency funds for repairs. The failure exposed mismanagement in the maintenance of city schools, with deterioration to where children are shivering in classrooms, unable to learn.
Broken school heating systems is a problem for both school managers and the politicians responsible for facilities funding. Making sure maintenance workers are not neglecting tasks, filing false forms, performing lazy inspections, or otherwise shirking their jobs is a management problem for school administrators.
On the other hand, ensuring maintenance is done appropriately isn’t a priority for many of these public employees, who are typically more interested in students’ education and their own compensation than leaky pipes and faulty air ducts. When employees neglect maintenance, things break down. In the winter this can mean days of canceled class. In the spring and fall the children sweat without air conditioning. Better oversight of maintenance employees may not be as rewarding a task as helping teachers, but it might make the all the difference if the school is better maintained.
In the American public education system, politicians are responsible for school budgets. Local politicians are accountable to the property taxpayers who fund the bulk of public school budgets. State politicians are accountable to statewide voters who care about the general level of education spending.
Financial mismanagement of public schools is well documented. Teacher pension funds are often in terrible financial shape. Their status as legacy defined-benefit retirement plans has locked districts into massive spending commitments. Unlike the 401(k)-style plans available to most American workers, teachers receive pensions funded by taxpayers. The Reason foundation’s Daniel Takash explains the relative merits of this tradeoff.
Dollars that are spent on pensions could be spent elsewhere. One of the obvious categories for marginal funding is capital maintenance such as replacing aging heating, plumbing, and air conditioning systems. This means less time between facilities upgrades, and the cash to afford high-quality systems that last longer, providing more value to taxpayers.
Preventing tragedies like lost class days for already-struggling students means more accountability in both school management and school finance. Administrators who fail to hold their maintenance staff to an appropriate standard can be replaced. Politicians who ignore pension reform, sapping funds from facilities maintenance, should be replaced. These are real choices for school boards and for taxpayers, between accountability for maintenance and deterioration through thousands of little instances of neglect — choices that could avert situations like the one we see in Baltimore.