Walking into Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet, once Nashville's premier black high school, the first things a visitor notices are buckets arranged to catch drips from the leaking roof, stained and damaged walls that serve as bad art, and the lack of basic amenities in this math and sciences magnet for seventh through 12th grade. The mold sets off junior Tabitha Johnson's allergies. One day, a falling blade from a worn industrial fan nearly clocked junior Blake Ezell. Students and faculty share the 1930s-era building with such brazen rodents that Principal Schunn Turner says she keeps her purse in a plastic container while at work "so I don't bring home any unwanted guests."
Welcome to one of the nation's top high schools (No. 30 on the U.S. News Best High Schools list). Martin Luther King isn't an anomaly. Not far away, at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet (No. 26 on the U.S. News list), things are worse, says Joe Edgens, executive director of facilities and operations at Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Hume-Fogg's classical, century-old exterior belies problems inside: The roof and floors are shot, and "we're the only high school in the state without a functioning gym," says the principal, Paul Fleming, who has waited more than 10 years for the district to provide one. He says the physical state of the school ranks in parental surveys as "the No. 1 concern."
Dilapidated schools are not unique to Nashville, Edgens says. Districts nationwide are dealing with aging, deteriorating schools in the face of crumbling capital and maintenance budgets, made worse by the economy. One quarter of U.S. school districts report deferring maintenance this school year, nearly twice last year's number, according to the American Association of School Administrators. This year, 1 in 10 districts is delaying a capital debt or bond program, the funding sources for new school construction, existing facility renovation, technology purchases, bus replacement, and systems repair or upgrade. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds have enabled schools to save jobs and programs (the money helped Nashville hold on to 300 teachers and plugged a $14 million operating budget gap), but capital budgets are hurting. "It's been pretty tough," says Bill Partin, executive director of the Tennessee School Plant Management Association. "That's where school systems cut first, in operations and facilities. It's something you don't see the effects of for a few years."
At Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati (No. 66 on the U.S. News list), Principal Jeffery Brokamp worries that the worn-down building, built in 1932, doesn't reinforce the "opportunity to excel" message he and the faculty send to students. "This school represents the No. 1 opportunity in the lives of many of our kids," says Brokamp. The danger, he adds, is when kids begin thinking, "Maybe the community really doesn't value what we do."
Scratching the surface. For Edgens, it's a moving target. Nashville's newly adopted 10-year facility master plan includes construction of a new gym at Hume-Fogg next year and further renovations over the next nine years. A facilities assessment of the 137 schools ranks Hume-Fogg as the worst off among the district's 12 high schools. In a good year, with a capital budget of about $68 million, Edgens can keep up with the system's needs—including building new schools, renovating at least a half-dozen schools a year, buying buses, and upgrading technology. This year he has $62 million; last year he had zero. "You have to constantly readjust," he says. "Everyone is up against that."
Meanwhile, MLK got the fourth-lowest score among Nashville high schools in the facilities assessment, says Edgens, whose daughter graduated from MLK before going on to New York University. Since the very worst schools are being addressed first, that means MLK must wait its turn for renovations, perhaps until 2014. And it means that the rodents, which have been known to eat food from the vending machines and the concession area, might not be going anywhere for a while. "All of Nashville should be concerned that we are educating the best and brightest in a broken-down building," Turner says.