There is massive construction going on at Lilburn Middle School while it gets an extensive exterior face lift. JOHN AMIS
Photo: John Amis
Photo: John Amis

Lots of work going on at Gwinnett schools

The impact of their physical environment on student success is a concept that didn’t receive much attention until the last few decades. But poor conditions can lead to increased truancy, vandalism and bullying, a lack of focus for students and high teacher turnover.

When facilities are well-maintained and obsolete structures make way for retrofits or newer buildings with technological advances, improvements on student outcomes will follow, according to several national studies.

Gwinnett County school officials are keeping that in mind as they undertake a multimillion-dollar program of school construction and maintenance this year.

As the largest district in the state, Gwinnett County experienced a construction boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Averaging about five new schools a year, it needed to keep up with growing enrollment. The district went from 80,000 students in the 1994-1995 school year to 136,000 in 2004-2005. The 2019-2020 school year has a projected total of 180,500 students.

To pay for that growth, the school system has sizable debt. According to data from the National Council on School Facilities, Gwinnett is paying over $50 million in interest on $1.2 billion debt.

The council formed in 2012 is made up of public school facilities directors who focus on state-level policy and practice concerning schools’ infrastructure.

As Gwinnett’s new buildings reach 20 years, it’s time for new roofs, new HVAC, paint and a lot of other maintenance.

With 141 schools and support facilities, Gwinnett has a maintenance budget larger than many school districts’ spending for the entire system. For the upcoming school year, it will spend $127,977,628 on construction and facilities operations.

“We work to keep every building on our radar,” said Walt Martin, chief operations officer. “We’re constantly trying to stay on top of things and plan for routine maintenance, but surprises do crop up.”

When former Gov. Nathan Deal left office one of his last acts was to restore full state funding to school districts. For nearly two decades, the state had enacted so-called “austerity cuts” forcing schools to provide the same level of learning with less money.

Although, the funds allocated to Gwinnett’s school facilities budget didn’t account for a “huge increase,” said Martin, it allowed some aesthetics to move ahead on the maintenance schedule.

“At no time did we compromise the learning environment,” he said. “Our job is to make sure it’s the most conducive to student success and staff comfort as we can.”

It’s that philosophy that created the National Council on School Facilities. Its role is to support states in their varied roles and responsibilities for the delivery of safe, healthy, and educationally appropriate public school facilities that are sustainable and fiscally sound.

“Schools have a lot of issues around maintaining buildings,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. “How well a school is maintained can impact education, neighborhood housing values, student health.”

One of the most difficult aspects of school upkeep, she said, is the fallacy that new construction is virtually maintenance-free.

“It’s hard with new schools because if they’re not properly maintained the roof won’t last for 25 years or the boiler will need to be replaced in eight years instead of 20,” said Filardo. “And it’s difficult to spend the recommended per-pupil costs on schools when construction costs are going up faster than funding.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.