Requiem for a notebook

This week I titled my column Requiem for a Notebook (or Memory Hole, Part 2). Back in the days when Rupert Spencer manned the facilities-management desk at the State Education Department, annual per-pupil costs for public education in Vermont were $344, compared to a national average of $375, a 1959-60 number which, adjusted for inflation, would equate in purchasing power to $2552 today. Vermont now spends a bit north of $12,000: quite a change. Conversely, some things in public education here havent changed since Spencers day: the basic criterion for student space requirements in public schools remains at 30 square feet per pupil. Back then, the National Digest of Educational Statistics also says, the national average for pupil-teacher ratio, which fairly closely equates to class size, was 25.8, and about the same in Vermont, (although the NDES doesnt offer a precise number) which explains why such elementary schools as Bridports were designed in the late 50s with classrooms in the nearly-1000 SF range with seating for 30. Back then, if you were in the school building design business in Vermont, you had in your possession Spencers little green book of space requirements, which contained such criteria as 30 SF/pupil in the classroom, and a range for other functions, from 50 SF/pupil in kindergarten to 1.5 SF/ meal served in kitchens. None of those criteria have survived into the modern School Construction Planning Guide, which has deleted them all, even the kindergarten requirement, except for the 30SF/p classroom standard which, on literal reading, would now seem to apply to all teaching stations, even kindergarten. Back then, too, there were generally accepted benchmarks (not regulations) for school design. With reasonable floor plan efficiency, elementary schools were expected to show a gross square footage of about 100 per pupil of capacity; middle schools, about 135; and high schools, about 170. These were and still are national averages, and such then-new buildings as Brandons Otter Valley HS fit right in. A high school for 750 would have a gross area of 127,500. If a building proposal werent close, if the square footage were (subjunctive contrary to fact) too much for the design capacity, Spencer would advise the State Board to deny State Aid. At 30% of construction costs, that was a sufficient club to keep imprudent school superintendents and their activist board members (not many in those now-gone days) in line, on behalf of taxpayers. But times have changed. Some time in the 80s, school square footages per pupil in Vermont , for new construction or additions, began growing just as enrollments began shrinking, and soon the old guidelines for the square-footage/capacity ratio began looking embarrassingly low. The official response was to ditch the data from which the ratio could be figured. No longer could you call the SED for a buildings square footage or capacity. A call to the local administrators would be answered, if at all, with a well get back to you or we dont know or even more imaginative responses. Thus, the Addison Northeast Supervisory Unions Business Manager Greg Burdick recently fielded an inquiry requesting the stats for the Bristol Elementary School with a copy of the septic permit, and Rutland Superintendent May Moran recently fielded an inquiry for the High School stats with a list of room capacities but no square footages (at various utilization percentages except the 70% prescribed by the School Construction Planning Guide) for spaces ranging from classrooms to stages. Ask inquirers Robert Flanagan in Bristol or Virginia Duffy in Rutland, whom I enlisted for the assignment, about their travails and frustrations in trying to get the two basic stats building capacity and square footageand ultimately not getting even those in the form in which, once upon a time, they would have been in the school-building pages in Rupert Spencers somewhat ponderous 3-ring binder (now consigned to the memory hole) which was the inventory repository for every public school building in the state. Why has it become so difficult, indeed impossible, to get answers to these two basic public-information questions from the public education establishment? One answer lies in the famous FDR quote from the 1930s: In politics nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way. More next week.

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