When did Upkeep Become Cost Neutral?

All too frequently these days some member of the medical community offers sage counsel about how best to fight back against the ravages of time as though a reminder is needed that my “youth” has left the building…

Granted, such advice might have proven more useful a half-dozen concussions ago, or more utilitarian had it preceded the inhalation of acids and asbestos while working in the industrial sector, or more beneficial had I been made aware of the effects on my bladder of “holding it in” for decades during the teaching day. Having grown up in orchards in the age of DDT lingers at the back of my mind; my first adolescent “health crisis” coincided with the introduction of Teflon in the family kitchen. So, adhering to a recommended spartan regimen of diet-and-training  has been imposed to forestall the further ravages of Father Time… 

The age of inevitable decline is an ordeal, but it beats the grim alternative.

All things have a life expectancy. Some achieve it; some fail to do so. Some might even surpass it, but nothing in the material world avoids the eventual crumbling into dust. One day, even the pyramids will be a distant cultural memory should the species be so fortunate as to survive that long… 

So, pardon this grizzled, old veteran of the classroom for taking exception with our political leadership and their admonishments reported in The Baltimore Sun Times during the budget cycle in 2015: “A message to Maryland school districts from the Board of Public Works: take better care of what you have.”

A fine sentiment when resources are available, but when Superintendents are compelled to choose between “the maintenance of the physical plant” or “the delivery of instruction”, the immediate welfare of children should be our highest priority. Still, the projected cost of the backlog of much needed renovations in our public schools tallies well in excess of $2 billion. Two decades at the current rate of spending for the Capital Improvement Plan would not take care of the backlog, let alone address new needs.

The maintenance of physical plants requires sufficient resources in the line-item for Capital Improvement Projects. Much to the detriment of the architectural integrity of our schools, planned maintenance has too long been considered a legitimate budgetary “cost avoid”. Most physical plants can sustain one bad year of budgeting; a decade of postponed maintenance can take a building past the point of no return. 

Every homeowner knows the devastating effects of sunlight on exposed painted surfaces and that the actions of the universal solvent – water – will eventually lead to roof replacement. In too many years, extreme cold wreaks havoc on plumbing fixtures and exposes critical weakness in climate control.

Maintenance of a physical plant needs to be systematized beginning when a building opens. Postponing of proper maintenance – as has been the practice for decades – leads to the lunacy of contemplating a facelift when the projected date of obsolescence is at hand, or worse, in the distant past. Some of our schools buildings have nearly doubled their anticipated lifespan.

Shivering children have difficulty concentrating in classrooms where visible vapor is exhaled and active Classroom Management should not entail arranging desks around the drip buckets. Let every classroom offer respite from the elements!

Merely attending school should never become, for any parent’s child, another experience suitable for classification as an Adverse Childhood Experience.

[This Commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on March 2, 2015. It has been slightly revised for readability and to keep it current. ]

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