After Years of Underfunding, Some Maine Schools Are Decaying

Sep 18, 2018

Many of Maine’s school buildings were built more than 50 years ago, and they need a lot of work: asbestos and lead removal, new roofs, windows and doors. But in the face of budget cuts after the Great Recession, many schools have struggled to keep up with those maintenance needs, forcing some districts to make tough choices.

This is part one in a two-part series.

There’s a giant, plastic tarp hanging below a hole in the ceiling inside the biology lab at Woodland Junior-Senior High School. When it rains, water leaks through the roof shingles, accumulates in the tarp, and is funneled into one of the classroom sinks. You can see the water damage in the wood below.

“The cabinets — these are all swelled up,” says Facilities Director Craig Croman, swinging open a cabinet door. “This is very nice room. Except, this.”

Croman is basically a one-man repair crew at the school in Baileyville. Outside, near the back of the building, he scratches at a roughly dime-size hole near a window and pokes his finger through. There’s little insulation remaining inside.

“I can tell you that if you put sodas against the exterior windows, it may not freeze. But it’ll be nice and cold for the students,” Croman says with a laugh, asked what it’s like in the winter. “We’d love to get the new unit heaters, with everything electric. But it’s a lot of money. And trying to get taxpayers to foot the bill for this whole thing is difficult.”

Facilities manager Craig Croman inside his office next to the boiler room at Woodland Junior-Senior High School.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

Croman would know. He’s one of the town councilors in Baileyville, which lies along the St. Croix River Reservoir, on the Canadian border. It’s home to the Woodland Pulp paper mill, which has provided jobs in the region for more than a century.

Superintendent Bill Braun says over the past few decades, as the paper industry went into decline, the district has had less money for maintenance.

“You put teachers in the classroom. You pay off the contracts. You keep the building running. But you don’t end up with the additional dollars to fix it,” he says. “The taxpayers’ [mill rate] went down, money got short and the first thing you cut is repairs.”

Districts across Maine echo the same story — deferred maintenance has piled up, leading to an estimated school capital funding gap in the state of nearly $1 billion.

“I think it’s rare that people are keeping up that well,” says Scott Brown, the director of school facilities for the Maine Department of Education. “There are different areas of the state that I think are able to keep up a little better than other areas. With the diversity of the state, some of the rural areas have more challenges. So I think there’s a need there.”

Woodland Junior-Senior High School in Baileyville.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

Maine’s Department of Education provides some help to districts through a loan program called the School Revolving Renovation Fund. An analysis of applications from the latest round of funding, in 2016, shows that some of Maine’s schools didn’t meet some fire and design codes, or had problems like outdated fire systems and deficient roofs. Less than half of the applications received state funding.

Even the schools that do get assistance are facing other challenges. SAD 41 Superintendent Michael Wright says his district, in the Penquis Valley region, recently received state funding for a fire sprinkler system and elevator. But he has yet to find contractors who are available to install them. In the meantime, he worries about a decades-old heating system that could go at any time.

“We might have no problem for the next five years,” he says. “But we could come in someday next February. And we could be shut down for a while until we have a temporary fix to get us through the winter season. That’s the dilemma that you have.”

Richard McCarthy has seen the results of deferred maintenance firsthand. He is the assistant state fire marshal and leads the agency’s inspection prevention division. Schools in Maine, and many other states, aren’t required to be inspected regularly, and McCarthy says his office only looks at about 10 schools per year.

The Woodland Pulp paper mill as seen from the local high school in Baileyville.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

Last year he assessed the eight schools in his home district of RSU 18 in Oakland as part of a district facilities study. It found more than 100 fire code violations.

“I told them, I said, ‘A lot of this is deferred maintenance that is just not getting done.’ It’s not at the fault of the maintenance staff. They just don’t have the money,” McCarthy says.

McCarthy says many of the violations were small — desks stored in corridors and coat hooks in hallways. But the district ultimately was required to raise about $400,000 as part of a local bond to take steps to fix the violations, including installing fire sprinklers in several schools.

Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, says fixing these long-lasting, persistent challenges is never easy for local districts, particularly rural ones. That’s why her organization advocates for assistance from the federal government, too.

“You look at the whole family has got to step in,” Filardo says. “It’s going to take a federal, state, local partnership to ensure any kind of equity in our school districts.”

A tarp hanging from the ceiling acts as a makeshift solution to a roof leak at Woodland Junior-Senior High School in Baileyville.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

Back in Baileyville, things are beginning to look up at Woodland Junior-Senior High School. After years of putting scarce resources toward repairs, Braun says the town recently approved a bond to start fixing the schools, including the leaky roof.

“So what we’ve done is said, ‘What’s it going to keep this building operating another 20 years?’” he says. “How are we going to buy another 20 years on a building that’s already aging out? And basically, that’s what we’re doing.”

A lot of work remains, including a mold problem in one classroom and a lack of fire sprinklers. But Braun says this school is the heart of this small, rural community. And with more help, he hopes it can survive for the next generation of students.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.