GREENSBORO At Grimsley High, the lack of locker room space forces some female athletes to change clothes in their cars.
At Page High, crowding forces some students to eat lunch in hallways.
Parents and school officials cite those as just two examples of conditions tied to crowded and aging buildings that they say threatens the health and safety of students.
Boys at Grimsley have more room to dress for practices and games, but that doesn’t mean it’s adequate. The field house, which dates to the 1950s, is difficult to properly sanitize and clean, leaving athletes vulnerable to staph infections. Rain leaks through the roof onto the old, wooden lockers that line the field house walls.
Storms pose a different problem at Page. When the weather is nice, about 200 students sit outside to eat their lunch, which eases crowding in the cafeteria.
“When it’s raining, that option is gone,” Principal Patrice Faison said. Instead, students rush for a seat in the crowded cafeteria. Otherwise, they have to eat lunch while sitting on hallway floors or in the auditorium.
Parents and students asked the board to keep their schools in mind when working out the district’s budget.
Playing catch up
Last week, the school board approved a fiscal 2017 budget request that includes $11 million more in local funds for capital needs such as classroom technology, library books, security upgrades and routine building maintenance. That’s more than twice as much as Guilford schools received from the county for fiscal 2016.
The $11 million would restore the school system’s capital funds to 2004-05 levels, when it had about 9.5 million square feet of property, Nora Carr, the school system’s chief of staff and co-interim superintendent, said in an email.
The Guilford school system’s facilities now span 12.2 million square feet.
District officials have noted the current funding levels equate to about 41 cents per square foot — not enough to stay on top of routine building maintenance and repairs.
The $11 million would not begin to cover the kinds of major construction and renovations parents, students and community members are requesting. In recent years, district administrators have estimated the overall facilities needs could be about $1 billion.
Meanwhile, parents and community members at some schools step in to help. Parents and alumni at Page have spent almost $200,000 on improvements at the school over the past 10 years, said Susan Tysinger, president of the Page Alumni and Friends Association.
They raised about $30,000 to convert an awkward space — an outdoor area enclosed within the school — into a seating area with picnic tables. Anyone visiting Page on a sunny school day likely will see students sitting outside eating lunch at the bright red picnic tables the association purchased.
Almost 2,000 students attend Page, a school built to hold 1,610 without mobile classrooms. The cafeteria is supposed to have a capacity of about 550 students, Tysinger said.
“Well, you couldn’t get 550 kindergartners in there,” she said.
Tysinger also headed a group that commissioned a local architect to evaluate the facility needs at Page. He responded with a 58-page report detailing several options ranging from about $2.5 million — mostly smaller scale repairs Tysinger likened to a Band-Aid — to about $16 million to $17 million to renovate and reduce the size of the auditorium to make space for a new cafeteria.
It’s not unusual for the community at some schools to do things such as painting buildings, landscaping campuses or buying needed classroom supplies — but not paying for the full construction or renovation of a school.
“That shouldn’t be our responsibility,” Tysinger said.
It’s the responsibility of the county commissioners and school board, she said.
Tysinger praised Page as one of the county’s flagship schools and one of the most diverse. She said students excel, and she thinks about what the school could be if it had everything it needs.
“I know that monies are scarce,” Tysinger said. “I do get it. But I would like to see the county commissioners and the school board work together to figure out how we can help Page High School.”
Officials say the broader school system needs include security upgrades, classroom technology, heating and cooling systems. Many of the system’s 127 schools are more than 30 years old, and a significant number are at least 50 years old.
School board Chairman Alan Duncan said he and other board members appreciate when parents, students and others in the community tell them about their concerns.
With facilities, it boils down to priorities, he said.
“There are very substantial needs at the majority of our schools from a capital maintenance standpoint,” Duncan said. Those needs can’t all be addressed at once, making it necessary to prioritize, he said.
Duncan said he believes commissioners are interested in the issue of improving school facilities and have a “deeper and deeper appreciation” of the significant capital needs in the schools. He said he hopes the two boards can continue discussing what can be done to upgrade facilities and have sufficient resources to maintain them.
“We understand that it always takes money to repair and maintain our school facilities,” said Jeff Phillips, chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners. His district includes Page and Grimsley.
The board has always tried to be sensitive to the school system’s operations and facilities needs, but resources are limited, Phillips said. The commissioners don’t have the authority to prioritize construction projects for the school system, he said.
“There have been plenty of times when we haven’t necessarily agreed with their priorities, but that’s what they’re elected to determine,” he said of the school board.
And the board’s priorities have not always aligned with district leaders’ recommendations. Board members also haven’t agreed with each other.
Parents and students stress the needs at Page and Grimsley even though the schools have gotten some renovations and upgrades under taxpayer-approved bond issues.
Replacing the field house at Grimsley is “not a want, but a desperate need,” Chris Coughlin told the school board Tuesday. She has two children attending Grimsley.
Everything from the heating and cooling systems to the plumbing is faulty, she said.
“There have been outbreaks of MRSA on the boys football team that trace back to the field house,” Coughlin said. She said her son is one of the athletes who contracted MRSA, a type of staph infection that is resistant to antibiotics.
The structure has an open design that makes it impossible for boys and girls to share the space.
Students don’t use the field house showers because of the lack of privacy. The windows of the building aren’t covered. The cold, brown water that shoots out of the showers would be an additional deterrent, said Lewis Newman, Grimsley’s athletics director.
“Frankly, some of our athletic facilities are an embarrassment,” Grimsley senior Blair Ramsey told the board Tuesday.
She said she changes in her 1989 Volvo sedan because other options, such as the visitors side restrooms or the physical education locker room, are an inconvenient distance from the practice sites or are usually locked. The unsanitary field house the boys use isn’t an option.
“Our facilities should not be stuck in the 1950s,” she said.
Coughlin said her niece was forced to change clothes in her car before cross-country meets.
“It’s unfair that female athletes have no room for personal hygiene, uniform changes or preparation for game play,” she said.
It’s also a possible violation of federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in schools.
About 40 percent of Grimsley students play sports. The school offers 20 different sports and has 44 different teams, Principal Charles Blanchard said.
At Grimsley, girls have equal access to sports as boys, but they don’t have the facilities to support the sports for girls, Blanchard said. He said he and other school officials worry about Title IX violations.
For example, some girls also store their athletic gear in their cars because they don’t have sufficient locker space. At one point, school officials bused girls to another site to get dressed for games, Newman said.
Ideally, the old field house would be demolished and a new one would be built closer to the game field and Jamieson Stadium, Blanchard and Newman said. That would free up space for another practice field.
For now, Grimsley has one practice field, which pushes practices late into the night to accommodate the many teams.
“We have to stagger times from 4 o’clock to 9 o’clock,” Blanchard said.
At Page, the cafeteria is also too small to efficiently prepare, cook and serve meals. The school has three 25-minute lunch periods, which some say is necessary because of the size constraints, but doesn’t give students enough time to get to the cafeteria, get served, eat and return to class.
“Many students are not getting lunch,” Elizabeth Heard, the mother of two Page students, told the school board in March. “Many students go hungry.”
And in Guilford County, an area with a significant food desert, the meals served at school may be the only food students get some days, Heard said.
Page students have described to the school board the effects of crowding at their school: students scrambling to get a desk in packed classrooms, chronic heating and cooling problems.
Emergency drills also pose a problem, junior Taylor Taylor told the board in March.
“When there are almost 300 people rushing down a tiny staircase, it does not go well,” Taylor said. “And if there was an actual fire, I’m not sure what we could do.”
Faison, Page’s principal, noted the school did not get additional bathrooms when its enrollment ballooned.
She hoped the school would benefit from a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase in 2014, but that failed.
“When the bond did not pass, it truly did break my heart,” Faison said. She said people would understand the need if they went to the schools.
“I know that’s so cliché,” she said, but “you sometimes just question our value of education.”