The 1996-97 yearbook cover at Troy Junior-Senior High School in northern Idaho showed a photograph of the 93-year-old school building plastered with orange construction tape. It read: "hard hat area" and "enter at your own risk."
A high school track team in Burnside, Ill., practices at a prison with better facilities. At a few crowded schools in New York City two years ago, urinals were covered with plywood to convert bathrooms to classrooms. In February 1997, a chimney crashed into the first floor library of West Central Junior High School, a 78-year-old school in Hartford, S.D., luckily empty because of a holiday.Across America, millions of students went back to school this year in buildings with leaky roofs, buckling floors, peeling paint, broken lights and falling plaster. The safety and fire code violations stack up not just in cities, but in the suburbs and rural areas as well.
"Ninety percent of the stuff in our building probably has not met code," says Bob Uebelher, 17, student council president at Troy. "If there were a fire, someone would die" because of inadequate exits.
School Principal Conrad Underdahl says the building has old wiring and only one fire escape.
Nationally, the cost to repair schools and build new ones is in the billions.
To pay for it, educators are looking beyond the traditional local school bond. Some states, including those prodded by court orders, are giving more construction money to school districts. Federal measures have been proposed, too, but have not cleared Congress.
"How in the world did we so confuse our priorities?" asks Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., one of several lawmakers proposing the use of federal money to help offset the interest that local school districts pay on construction projects.
More than 14 million children - about a quarter of all schoolchildren nationwide - attend class in buildings that need significant repairs, according to the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm.
A GAO survey of 10,000 schools in 1995 found one-third needed extensive repair or replacement of one or more buildings. In all, 38 percent of big-city schools, 30 percent of rural schools and 29 percent of suburban schools had at least one inadequate building.
"Some windows are held into the frames with nails. If you open them, they could fall out and hurt somebody," says Alieze Stallworth, a teacher at Coolidge High School and mother of two students in Washington, D.C., public schools.
The GAO says the cost to build new schools and modernize old ones is at least $112 billion.
And the needed repairs come at a time when the Education Department says enrollment will reach a record 52 million students this year and keep growing through 2007. Schools also are looking for money to link classroom computers to the Internet.
How did America's schools get so dilapidated?
For decades, voters tended to vote "yes" for property tax hikes for school repairs. In the early 1990s, the public's mood changed and school bond issues started failing, says Mary Fulton of the Education Commission of the States.
Some voters thought property taxes were high enough, or they weren't convinced that districts were responding fast enough to concerns about academic quality. Others vote down bond issues because they don't believe the school district spends tax money wisely.
And some critics suspect school districts are exaggerating the problem. They blame school boards for mismanagement or making poor budget decisions.
Missteps have occurred, Fulton says. But the biggest problems are deferred maintenance and enrollment growth: Repairs in some cases are put off year after year "and all of a sudden the roof is leaking or caving in."
Much of the cost of repairing and building schools has traditionally fallen on local property taxpayers. The result: Schools thrive in areas with lots of property to tax. Those in depressed areas are strapped for cash.
This growing gap between rich and poor districts has prompted parents and school districts to sue in several states. State courts have sided with the poorer schools, ordering state lawmakers to make financing formulas more equitable.
Some states, including Virginia, Florida, Illinois, California and Kentucky, have allocated more money to repair schools.