(CN) — The majority of public school districts in the U.S. are focusing their budgets on security to prevent shootings instead of widely needed building repairs, a federal watchdog found in a new report.
The Government Accountability Office, an independent federal agency that monitors how tax dollars are spent, said in a report released Thursday that school districts’ highest priorities for their facilities were improving security, expanding technology and addressing health hazards.
The report, based on a survey of hundreds of districts, shows that about half of the school districts in the U.S. need to update or replace multiple systems like heating, ventilation, air conditioning or plumbing.
One-third of schools need HVAC system upgrades, which could result in air quality or mold problems if not addressed, according to the watchdog. Additionally, one-quarter of districts reported a need to repair or replace lighting fixtures in at least half of their schools. A similar number of districts need repairs to roofing, security, plumbing or windows in most of their schools.
The GAO report shows images of crumbling schools around the country, including some that hold standing water, are full of asbestos or require bottled drinking water.
“Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, outdated and hazardous school buildings were undermining the quality of public education and putting students and educators at risk,” House Education Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., said in a statement responding to the report. “Now, the pandemic is exacerbating the consequences of our failure to make necessary investments in school infrastructure.”
The congressman said the audit gives “clear, irrefutable evidence” that lawmakers should act fast to help schools make the repairs.
But the Education Department said in a statement that school building infrastructure it and should be handled by state and local governments.
The way schools receive funding, mainly from local property taxes, requires many districts to make the difficult choice between infrastructure and security. In 13 of 16 schools the surveyed, security measures were at the forefront of budget priorities.
In one high school surveyed by GAO, for example, officials applied a specialized film to exterior windows to make them bullet resistant and constructed a new security vestibule where visitors wait before entering the school. In Michigan, a middle school used allocated funds to build additional barriers on classroom doors.
Schools that serve low-income communities are especially affected. Local government funding in more affluent areas made up 72% of overall funding for building costs, while in schools in low-income areas only received about 35% of their facilities funding from the local government.