The Wrong Rules for Building Modern Schools

Some State regulations work against efficiency and best practices in building educational facilities that suit contemporary teaching methods, provide flexibility for changing curricula, and support student safety and accessibility. 

Most people know that students need a desk to do their work and a table to eat, but when it comes to the State’s contributions toward school construction costs, those items, along with many others, are considered “ineligible” expenses.

That means that even in the poorest counties in the State, county governments must be ready to fund 100% of furniture and equipment through local budgets, in addition to paying the State’s calculated “local share” of the project’s other construction costs.

It also means that once eligible costs are taken into account, Maryland does not fund school construction at as high a level as many other States. According to statistics from a national nonprofit, Center for Green Schools, Maryland is 15th in the nation on school construction funding.

Maryland pays at least 50% of eligible school construction costs, but its level of participation in total school construction costs is substantially lower. . . When factoring in ineligible costs, including planning and design, movable furnishings, and square footage in excess of eligible amounts, Maryland covered 26% of total school construction costs from 1994 through 2013, the fifteenth highest level among the 50 states, as reported in the 2016 State of Our Schools report on K-12 facilities in the United States. –Maryland 21st Century School Facilities Commission Final Report

How Does the State Decide What It Will Not Fund?

The definitions of ineligible furniture costs may have derived from the idea that furniture and equipment doesn’t last as long as a school building. But, practices and quality have changed over time.

Nowadays, some counties only buy furniture and equipment once through the capital budget, when a school is built, and some of the furniture and equipment comes with “lifetime warranties.” Furniture and equipment are not always put on a replacement cycle — they are expected to last until the building itself requires major renovation.

Best practices in school construction include design of flexible multi-use spaces and use of modular furniture. State funding practices are at odds with those choices.

“Eligible Cost” Rules Work Against Efficiency and Inclusiveness

In trying to predict whether furniture will be eligible for State funding, a good general rule of thumb is that only furniture and equipment that is permanently affixed to the building is eligible for State cost share.

Having to permanently install furniture and equipment in order to get State cost-share is restrictive, expensive, and runs counter to the aims of the school construction program.

The Knott Commission heard testimony on best practices in school construction – including building flexibility into structures so that they can be adapted for new teaching methods and subject matters in the future, creating long-term savings.

State Funding Is Not Available for Flexible, Cost-effective Furnishing & Equipment

The following are examples of costs considered eligible and ineligible for State funding, based on recent school construction projects.

Classroom, Cafeteria and Library Furniture

  • Desks/tables/chairs (movable) – ineligible
  • Cafeteria tables – ineligible
  • Cafeteria serving lines – ineligible
  • Library Book shelves – ineligible
  • Cabinetry mounted to the wall – eligible

Kitchen Equipment

  • Walk-in refrigerators – eligible
  • Reach-in refrigerators – ineligible
  • Ovens: furnished and installed by the contractor – eligible; ovens on carts/wheels and not permanently installed – ineligible
  • Kitchen counters – generally ineligible, because they are typically movable so that floors can be cleaned easily.

Science Lab Equipment

  • Sink, Eye Wash (permanent) – eligible
  • Eye Wash that is movable – like on a cart to go to the student’s location – ineligible
  • Microscopes – ineligible
  • Refrigerators – ineligible

State Funding Is Not Available for Movable Lifts for Special Needs Students

Lifts that are permanently affixed to the wall of a special education classroom are generally eligible for State funding. Movable lifts that follow a student that needs a lift are generally ineligible. This is restrictive for students and for school systems, since it limits access outside the special education classroom and it means that classroom spaces cannot be easily adapted for other purposes.

State Funding Is Not Available for Blinds Used For Security and Lockdowns 

For example, window shades and blinds that are a part of school security plans & lock down drills are generally ineligible for State funding.

Work To Be Done on “Eligible Cost” Rules

While many elements of the State’s school construction programs were updated through the 21st Century School Facilities Act of 2018, however, the issue of eligible costs remains a hurdle to building 21st Century Schools for Maryland’s students. MACo advocates for a re-consideration of eligible cost regulations and the decisions made by the State in applying the regulations to individual school construction projects.