A lack of state money for the Emergency Repair Program has left school districts across the state looking for alternative ways to pay for new roofs, floors and ventilation systems.
Some problems were manageable a few years ago. With time, something manageable has devolved into emergency. The district has a safety net to cover true emergencies. But staff are reluctant to dip into it.
"We're not the same district anymore. I don't have the people to do it anymore," said Art Hand, Lodi Unified School District's assistant superintendent of facilities and planning.
The program was part of the Williams Settlement in 2004. The state agreed to set aside $800 million for the Emergency Repair Program. Each year the state was supposed to allocate $100 million from leftover education funds to fix up underperforming schools.
In the first year or two of the program, it was highly under-subscribed, mostly because it was based on reimbursement and districts couldn't come up with the money. A 2007 amendment to state law allowed districts to apply for grants. That's when applications came rolling in.
But the program relied on leftover education funds. When the recession hit, there was nothing left over. Schools had permission to use that money in their own districts and returned nothing to the state. At this point, the state has paid $338 million of the $800 million it promised.
More than 1,500 schools applied for emergency repair funding, and over 1,100 have received some money. Some are waiting for more funding. Others have received nothing. The statewide trend continues in Lodi Unified.
District schools are still waiting on nearly half a million dollars in approved projects. About $11 million in applications were submitted for more projects, but the state hasn't even looked at them in years. They've stopped accepting new applications.
Even if all $800 million of the promised money was available, it wouldn't be enough to cover the waiting applications.
The district submitted an application for a full HVAC system replacement for Delta Sierra Middle School, but it hasn't been approved. That was three years ago.
"We tried to wait. But we just couldn't," Hand said. The district went ahead and installed the new system, but kept tabs on it in hopes of future reimbursement.
The program has helped the district in some cases.
A number of projects have been funded for a total of about $15 million districtwide.
Lawrence, Heritage, Beckman, Live Oak, Nichols and Washington schools have all benefited from the Emergency Repair Program for projects like fixing roofs and repairing the playground blacktop.
"It's not for modernization projects. The school must have a need," Hand said.
One school's applications were fully funded. Bear Creek High School received $4.5 million to repair its roof, get new paint, upgrade flooring and put in a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.
Needham Elementary School was able to remodel most of the damaged campus.
Carol Rivas, principal, said her students take more pride in the school, especially those who took classes in the main building, which was mostly out of use. Six classrooms were blocked off due to disrepair.
"The carpet was horrible, the lighting was horrible. It wasn't an environment you really wanted children in," she said.
All that remains is to repaint the school and repair the blacktop. But finding the money for those and other projects is difficult, said Catherine Pennington, the district's assistant superintendent of elementary education.
"We try really hard to make sure we prioritize the things that get addressed. We always handle safety related concerns first," Pennington said. "Sometimes with funding you have to choose what's more important over what's more cosmetic. We would love for all of our schools to look shininingly perfect."
There has been no discussion to potentially cut salaries or other budgets to fund these repairs.
The facilities and operations department has reached a stage of tough decisions.
"Sometimes we have to make the choice of fixing the lights or providing Internet access. If November goes south, we'll be making a lot more of those," Hand said.