School repairs: Pay now or pay later Schools shaved maintenance budget as need swelled.

April 29, 1996

WHEN COUNTY budgets get tight, repair and maintenance is one of the first categories to get the ax. The old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," seems to be the guiding principle.

Unfortunately, as the Anne Arundel County school system is discovering, another familiar expression comes into play: "You can pay me now, or you can pay me later."

The longer repairs are delayed, the more expensive they become. The Anne Arundel school system is now in the !c unenviable position of having its buildings deteriorate faster than they can be fixed. At present, the backlog of projects amounts to about $65 million. Little hope exists of winnowing it down any time soon.

Much of the problem can be traced to a decision to reduce the portion of the education budget devoted to repair and maintenance from about 13 percent in the early 1980s to about 10 percent today. Moreover, the reductions came at a time when an increasing number of school system facilities began to age noticeably, thus requiring higher levels of maintenance and repair. As a result, the backlog is growing at a rate of 10 percent a year.

Everyone involved in the education budget process is well aware of the situation. However, when dollars are short, it is easy to put off roof replacements, modernization of mechanical systems or repainting of classrooms and common areas.

Instead of heeding a repair schedule that calls for re-roofing every 20 years, for example, the cycle is stretched to as many as 30 years. In the best of circumstances, a roof may indeed last 10 years beyond its expected life, but many times it won't. Leaking roofs result in considerable damage, to walls, books, equipment and carpeting. The cost escalates beyond mere replacement of the roof. In fact, two employees now do nothing but patch roofs.

Rather than let the repair and maintenance projects mount, the school board should set aside 15 percent of the budget for

repairs, as standard policy. Like debt service, it should be untouchable.

Should the system begin to eliminate most of the backlog of repairs, the amount could then be scaled back. Until then, however, it makes no financial sense to scrimp on repair and maintenance budgets.

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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