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OUTDATED BUILDINGS SEND BLEAK MESSAGE

Cafeterias without kitchens.

Gymnasiums without showers.

Clinics in closets.

Welcome to Buffalo's public schools.

The city's tight-fisted spending on its schools has left its most visible scar on the buildings that 46,000 students attend every day. The district not only has lacked the money to replace old buildings, but it also has not been able to modernize or perform even the most basic of preventive maintenance.

While school buildings are clean and pose no physical threat to students, many are dreary, cramped and outdated. They function as an uninspiring, and at times inhibiting, environment for learning.

"The conditions send the message to kids that the school is not that important -- and neither are they," said Jacqueline Morana, principal at Houghton Academy on Clinton Street.

The age of most city schools is the biggest problem.

More were built in the previous century than in the previous decade.

Ten are still heated with coal.

Fourteen still have manual cord/plug switchboards.

A Buffalo News tour of all 72 city schools found that, while a few are outstanding, most school buildings shared common shortcomings that usually are related to age.

Overcrowding a problem

The problems begin in the classroom. While most feature at least a decent ambience, many classrooms have poor acoustics that produce an echo chamber. It's not uncommon to find light fixtures that are decades old. Windows in some classes resemble a patchwork quilt, a mix of glass panes and Plexiglas replacement panels that have clouded with age.

Then there are the basements. Many schools are overcrowded and have resorted to putting classes in any nook and cranny that will accommodate a group of children. Sometimes that means basements.

Many clinics providing special services, such as remedial reading programs, have been crammed into former closets.

Specialty classrooms are another problem altogether. Most metal and wood shops contain equipment that has not changed since the schools were built. Many science classrooms in the elementary schools lack plumbing and electrical outlets for work stations. Music and art rooms frequently are nothing more than regular classrooms.

Many administrative offices often leave much to be desired. Six schools don't have a central public-address system. Sixteen don't have telephones in classrooms. Fourteen lack modern switchboards. When you call Riverside High School, the clerk has to plug into an old-fashioned switchboard, dating to the Depression.

Cafeterias are often dingy places, frequently stuck in the basement or what might be considered the attic. Three schools don't have cafeterias at all, and 21 elementary schools don't have kitchens. In those schools, many serving breakfast to impoverished students as well as lunch to the entire school, students eat cold, prepackaged meals.

Most gymnasiums are decent, if not modern. But a vast majority of elementary schools lack showers in the locker rooms, and several can't divide their gyms in two because partitions are broken.

At Houghton Academy, large sections of the hardwood floor have been replaced with plywood. Termites had eaten the original floor. At Olmsted School 56 on West Delavan Avenue, a high arching jump shot is more likely to hit the ceiling than the net because the gym is in the basement.

Many auditoriums also are lacking. They sport original wooden seats. Battleship-gray floors need paint. Stage curtains need repairs or replacement. The most disappointing auditorium in the whole system may be, of all places, Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts on Clinton Street. Seating is limited, the sound system is antiquated and the balcony isn't functional.

School grounds vary. A handful, like Red Jacket Academy on Abbott Road and the Science Magnet adjoining the Museum of Science, overlook parks. Others are hemmed in by parking lots.

Many early childhood centers have playgrounds. But School 12 on Ash Street and School 31 on Stanton Street don't.

Graffiti is a common sight, but not all of the blight around schools is the handiwork of neighborhood vandals.

A playground, basketball court and softball diamond behind Emerson High School on Sycamore Street lie in ruins at the hands of city crews. They used the area as a dumping ground for snow during the 1985 blizzard. The snow piles eventually melted, but the area never was restored and remains "grungy," according to Principal Salvatore Sedita.

Age plagues most buildings

What doesn't readily meet the eye is often worse.

About half of city schools need new or revamped plumbing, electrical or heating systems, said Donald Gorey, the district's associate superintendent for plant services. At least one-quarter need new windows, roofs or masonry repairs, he said.

The system's inability to make these repairs has led to wasted energy and extensive water damage. The brick exterior at Grover Cleveland High School is so porous, for example, that water bleeds into classroom walls during a hard rain. The windows and insulation at School 78 are so poor that teachers, on an especially cold, blustery day last winter, shifted their pupils to rooms on the leeward side.

"The age of the buildings absolutely is a problem," Gorey said.

More than two-thirds of city schools were built before the Depression -- most in the 1920s, and one dating back as far as 1894. The Flapper Era buildings are structurally sound but are weather-beaten because of Buffalo's climate and the lack of preventive maintenance.

A lack of materials and manpower means crews usually deal with problems only when they approach the emergency stage, Gorey said. The district once employed almost 300 tradesmen; the number now totals about 55.

While most principals are happy with their building engineers, who provide custodial services, many expressed frustration over maintenance efforts handled by district headquarters.

Crystal Boling-Barton, principal at McKinley High School, said photo-development equipment sat for about three years before crews built a darkroom.

At Grover Cleveland High School, it took six years for crews to repair broken windows in the gym, said Principal Benjamin Randle. As a result, his staff sometimes shoveled snow from the gym floor. But it was more than an inconvenience. Eventually, it led to water damage.

The design of many school buildings also poses a problem.

Most Buffalo schools were built at a time when society and education were much different. Youngsters attended neighborhood schools and went home for lunch, hence no need for cafeterias. Students stayed at their desks in the same classrooms, thus small, one-dimensional classrooms by today's standards.

"There's a difference between having a building that is safe and clean and having one that is educationally appropriate," said Olmsted Principal Judith Ricca.

System forced to lease classes

Not only are many classrooms cramped, but many elementary schools are bursting at the seams.

The district this year is leasing space in 35 buildings, including many former parochial schools. Some 1,340 elementary pupils attend classes in leased sites. Another 400 attend classes in portable classrooms connected to main school buildings.

The leased space is costly and a hassle for educators and pupils. The district will pay $1.4 million in rent this year for satellite school space, in addition to the nearly $650,000 it pays Buffalo State College for use of the Campus West School.

Principals dislike the satellites because teachers and students are separated from the school. They're removed from the library, the cafeteria, the gym and -- perhaps most important -- their peers.

Several factors stymie efforts to expand, renovate and replace schools.

Perhaps the most celebrated was the failure of the school district during the 1980s to seek reimbursement from the state for some $11.5 million in construction costs. The state pays for up to about 60 percent of the cost of most capital projects, ranging from construction to renovation.

The more significant problem was former Mayor James D. Griffin and the Common Council's reluctance to spend money to replace and renovate schools.

The city opened only one new school during Griffin's 16 years in office and only three during the past 25 years. He and the Council, meanwhile, granted the Board of Education only a fraction of the money requested to renovate schools.

Fortunately, when the city has built schools, it has built well.

The Science Magnet, constructed in the late 1980s, may be the finest school facility in Western New York. And the Makowski Early Childhood Center scheduled to open next fall is another state-of-the-art building.

All the other schools built since the 1960s -- including Waterfront, Campus West, McKinley, West Hertel Academy, Southside, Traditional and Campus East -- are excellent facilities that compare favorably with suburban schools.

The district is planning to use $8 million in retroactive building aid from the state as seed money for an $80 building improvement program over the next four years. The city has indicated a willingness to put $6.7 million toward helping to underwrite the bond sale.

Much of the work would involve infrastructure improvements to schools, such as roof replacements and the installation of new heating systems.

The district also has committed to building a new academy in the Black Rock-Riverside area. Also under consideration is an elementary school in the Main-LaSalle corridor, a high school in the Lower West Side and a new building for the Olmsted School. The district probably could afford to build only one.

The estimated cost of bringing all of Buffalo's schools up to par is at least $600 million. For that reason, School Board President Donald A. Van Every termed the $80 million plan "a decent start, but a slow start."

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