It’s a decades-old saga—aging facilities in need of renovation—and no money to fix them.
But while school officials are aware of the perennial problem, it doesn’t make it easier to stomach the fact that students are facing substandard conditions throughout the year.
“At the Legislature we always hear that education is a priority, but there comes a time when you have to walk that talk,” Agueda Johnston Middle School Principal James Petite says. “And if you look at the state of the public schools on island, that doesn’t reflect that philosophy.”
Petite has been struggling for over four years to address deteriorating awnings at the Ordot middle school that leave students completely drenched as they make their way to classes. He considers the awnings to be a health and safety hazard. “Sometimes the rotted wood would fall; we’re just thankful [that] at this point it hasn’t hit a student, but that’s gonna be next. They’ve been forewarned, and I hope they take this seriously because Simon Sanchez High School, Benavente Middle School, and Agueda Johnson are some of the oldest schools in Guam. Major issues affect everything that we do here, especially with our students. We need this done,” Petite says.
But with so many schools in need of repair, the issue isn’t just the price tag, but where to start.
According to DOE Superintendent Jon Fernandez, Guam has not had an updated master facilities plan for at least a decade. The master plan would create an effective strategy for investment in schools based on the ages of facilities, enrollment trends, and availability of funds. “The strategy to repair, renovate, or build should take into account the conditions at each individual school. Renovation or rebuilding often become options when the needs are so great that a simple repair will not be the safest, most practical, or most cost-effective solution over the long-term,” Fernandez says.
The next issue is funding. Exactly how much would it cost the GDOE to fund an overhaul of schools that desperately need repairs? Fernandez says at this point, there is no clear-cut answer to that question. “The United States Department of Interior estimated it would take $90 million to bring our current facilities up to the basic health and safety standards, so that is the most recent estimate to repair our schools at a basic level. If we were talking about investing in schools that are going to take us 50 years into the future, I would guess the amount would be much higher. The updated master facilities plan will project our school needs into the future, as well as the funds needed to achieve the optimal level of investment,” Fernandez says.
The most recent overview of facilities needs was done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2013, and found $90 million worth of deferred maintenance costs that need to be addressed. “Deferred maintenance basically refers to the fact that the department had not been able to regularly and proactively address our needs to keep school facilities in good repair,” Fernandez explains, “therefore resulting in more significant repairs needed later.” These issues continue with the district’s 41 campuses now averaging an age of 40 years old.
The problem boils down to chronic funding shortages.
Committee chair on public education Senator Joe San Agustin has put it simply: “We don’t have a pot of gold.” During a recent tour of Southern High School, the freshman senator and former Guam Education Board member said, “I’m not saying we’re not gonna give you money when you need it. I’m saying, number one: We have to make sure the money is being spent wisely.”
Recent tussles over the department’s budget at the Legislature have left DOE with the short end of the stick. While the agency requested roughly $326 million from the Legislature in FY17, it was only appropriated $240 million, of which it will only receive a fraction. This is because allotments are based on available funds, which are based on the fluctuation of cash collections by the government. GDOE has requested for a similar budget in FY18, although it will likely receive well below that figure.
Despite limited local funding, the department has sourced federal funding to help. In addition to receiving up to $60 million from the U.S. Department of Education annually, the department secured roughly $56 million from the American Reinvestment and Revitalization Act, which went toward structural repairs, fixing roofs, installing fire alarms, improving electrical systems, and installing air-conditioning systems throughout the district.
The ARRA funding also helped renovate Untalan Middle School, parts of George Washington High School, and the SHS fine arts auditorium and gymnasium.
“This approach helped to get schools back to a basic level of operation, but the department still faces challenges in keeping up with the maintenance need of our facilities, meaning that even these most recent investments are at risk of failure,” Fernandez says. For example, many of the fire alarms installed with ARRA funding are no longer operational due to a lack of maintenance. Also, just five years later, the air-conditioning system at the SHS gymnasium is inoperable and awaiting repair.
In addition, GDOE is set to benefit from $5 million in funding from USDOI, which will go toward the repair of fire alarm systems district wide. The USDOI funding will also pay for the installation of a fire alarm system at SHS, and canopy projects throughout the district. So far, Guam has received $1 million; the remaining $4 million will be released over the next four years.
On a smaller scale, the department also receives help from local agencies. For example, the Guam Offices of Homeland Security and Civil Defense have assisted with small hazard mitigation projects throughout the district.
But as some funding sources have become available, others are no longer viable, making it a constant juggling act to keep the department afloat. “In the past, the department was able to benefit from a bond issuance aimed at addressing public health concerns; however, this funding has been depleted,” Fernandez says. Because the department is no longer able to access funding from the bond issuance, GDOE must look to alternative avenues to identify funding for maintenance needs.
One school that is undoubtedly among the worst cases at GDOE is Simon Sanchez High School. The school was even shut down in 2011 due to health and safety concerns. It then faced possible closure by public health officials in 2015 after inspectors found over 70 demerits related to health and safety violations. Public Health allowed the school to remain open following some immediate fixes, despite areas of the campus being closed off to students where violations have yet to be addressed.
Principal Carla Masnayon said the campus has a long list of issues, and as the years go by, that list isn’t getting any shorter. “Some of the major concerns that we do have on the campus are going to be the leaks inside the classrooms, the continued leaks,” she says. “We’ve always had to replace the ceiling tiles.”
The leaks have led to recurring repairs, and Band-Aid approaches by department leadership. “Let’s say we do mitigate the flooring for the temporary classrooms, that’s going to be another thing that we can expect to happen the following year. There are already classrooms out there that they’ve replaced floors, and we’ll have to do it again, and that’s within the one-year timeline,” Masnayon adds.
“Another major area is our temporary classrooms or wooden structures, so when we do have heavy rain, it’s always a problem for us, whether it’s leaking or the walls are moist or the flooring,” Masnayon says. In fact, some of the school’s 21 temporary classrooms have sinking floorboards, while others that have mold issues have been closed off to students. These “temporary” classrooms have been in use for at least 20 years.
Deputy superintendent Joe Sanchez says the closure of the temporary rooms is a priority due to structural concerns. To make this happen, teachers may have to share classrooms, or opt for double-session next year to accommodate the closures.
But those aren’t the only issues. Masnayon continues, “We also want to be able to address our common restrooms, because those are also in bad shape. In Butler building area the plumbing is a concern for us, so we’ve always had to go in and try and unclog the toilets.”
Former SSHS student Sarah Garcia remembers those same issues plaguing the school when she was there in 2012. “I think, for me as a girl, the biggest issue was the female bathrooms because they weren’t decent. I’m so proud of our custodians because they tried to keep it clean, but there’s only so much you can do with a failing building,” she remembers. “I noticed some of the rooms, there were holes on the ceilings…some of the students were sent to teachers’ rooms to pick up resources or books, and some of them were wet with mold, and in that situation you feel like, ‘Am I going to a kind of third-world country school?”
Many of the issues she experienced five years ago continue to plague students at the Yigo campus.
While the home of the Sharks is in dire need of repair, it’s not the only school that has garnered concern from island leaders in recent months. Forty minutes south, 20-year-old Southern High School is also in need of major investment. Not only does a lack of air-conditioning prevent students from using the auditorium and gymnasium, but also just 100 feet away, the school’s tennis courts and Olympic-sized swimming pool lay abandoned. “We opened up in 1997, and shortly thereafter, we had a huge typhoon, a super typhoon, and of course the pool was severely damaged as a result of that,” Deputy Superintendent Chris Anderson says. “So at this point we’re estimating roughly about $2 million to get the pool fully restored in order to be used.”
Southern alum and successful business owner Lenny Fejeran remembers some of these same concerns when he attended the school when it was first built. “I’m not surprised, it would take a lot to really to get that school back to how it was when we first went there, to be brand new, and at this point—17 years later—we could hope for a better school, but I don’t know. Realistically, it’s hard to say that we have hope when it’s already 17 years later and it’s still the same, or even worse,” he says.
One way GDOE hoped to address these chronic concerns is through a $100-million procurement, which would go toward the renovation of SSHS, as well as 34 other schools. At least $1 million of that would also fund the creation of an updated master facilities plan. However, four years later and continued protests and appeals by offeror CoreTech International have stalled the project from moving forward.
“Procurement for such a large project—up to $100 million in investment in Simon Sanchez High School and other projects—is going to be complicated and competitive,” Fernandez says. “Because of our procurement process, we work diligently to continue to train our procurement and legal staff to support our efforts. This does not mean that protests can be completely avoided.”
The project is currently undergoing appeal before the Office of Public Accountability.
Until funding becomes available, island leaders are beginning to see the need to think outside the box to bring facilities up to a standard students deserve.
After touring SHS, Senator San Agustin says public-private partnerships could be the solution. “When you look at the tennis court, why don’t we offer that to the tennis association,” he adds. “To take over the tennis court? Take over the pool? Take over the gym?” Because half the campus is currently underutilized, he says other organizations—including charter schools or the Guam Community College—may be able to use these areas in exchange for help with maintenance.
Meanwhile, Fejeran says if the department can’t do it alone, maintenance of Guam schools should be a community effort. “I know every school has its set of problems. I think maybe some of the local businesses can contribute in any way to helping maintain facilities at the schools,” Fejeran explains.
These options must be considered, because it is clear the department and Legislature have not been able to do it on their own.
“In the past, the department was able to benefit from a bond issuance aimed at addressing public health concerns; however, this funding has been depleted.”
— DOE Superintendent Jon Fernandez
“I know every school has its set of problems. I think maybe some of the local businesses can contribute in any way to helping maintain facilities at the schools.”
— Southern alum/business owner Lenny Fejeran