When it rains outside Middleton Library on LSU’s campus, it rains inside, too.
A group of employees with offices in the basement know to bring their rain boots in heavy storms because the water creeps downward, penetrating the walls, dripping through the ceiling lights and pooling around their feet as they walk around their office space.
Some shelves on the lower floor containing microfilm and old governmental texts are covered in plastic sheeting to protect them from the drips. Many shelves are empty because they are in a danger zone. Several decaying floor tiles have been replaced with plywood boards.
They are conditions unbecoming of the state’s flagship university’s library, according to faculty and other educational officials who say the building should be a beacon of research and learning at the Baton Rouge campus.
But it’s also emblematic of the $510 million backlog of renovation and improvement projects that are needed to bring LSU’s historic campus up to date.
Across all of Louisiana’s four- and two-year public schools, the total backlog on deferred maintenance ranges from $1.5 billion to $2 billion. The projects waiting for funding include roof replacements, air conditioning and heating unit repairs, upgrades to make buildings accessible to the disabled and other improvements associated with the wear and tear of decades-old facilities.
Public higher education institutions saw their state aid slashed by 55 percent during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure. And although tuition and fee increases can be used to plug operating budgets at many schools like LSU, campuses are struggling to deal with their growing lists of renovation and infrastructure needs as historic buildings continue to age without funds to maintain them.
Over the past five years, the Board of Regents reports that only $4.5 million has been allocated for deferred maintenance work at higher education facilities — a virtual drop in the bucket.
As the Legislature prepares to convene in special and regular sessions to deal with a two-pronged financial crisis — an estimated $750 million shortfall for the fiscal year that ends June 30 and another $1.9 billion for the following year — education officials are still holding out hope that funds can be scrounged together to give relief to some of the oldest buildings in disrepair.
Funding for deferred maintenance comes from the state’s capital outlay budget, designated for construction and infrastructure, which competes heavily with transportation and legislative pet projects across the state. In the case of higher education facilities, the capital outlay budget tends to favor new construction and major renovation projects over regular repairs to older buildings.
For example, capital outlay funds were appropriated for new construction like LSU’s glamorous Business Education Complex, its newly renovated French House for the Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College and the ongoing Patrick F. Taylor Hall expansion. But while the Board of Regents regularly requests $350 million in capital outlay money every year, it has received only about $85 million in construction funds over the past five years — and of that, only $4.5 million was designated for deferred maintenance.
This year, instead of asking for money for new state-of-the-art construction, the board is requesting $350 million in capital outlay funds to be used only for humble, deferred maintenance projects.
“We’re not asking for a nickel of new construction,” said Richard Lipsey, the Board of Regents chairman. “This is, to my knowledge, the first time. Before, there’s always been requests for new science labs, new dormitories, new auditoriums, new classrooms.”
Lipsey said he’s appalled by what he calls the “deterioration of our campuses.”
“We have roof leaks, then the water drains through the buildings, running through the walls and causes mildew and floor damage,” he said. “There are stains all over the buildings; it’s unhealthy.”
He’s concerned that ignoring maintenance problems is going to result in buildings having to be closed entirely in years to come.
LSU, as the largest and oldest public campus in the state, has the longest and most expensive list of renovation projects. The Baton Rouge campus’s deferred maintenance list is larger than those for all 12 universities under the Southern University and University of Louisiana systems combined.
For the entire LSU system — which includes LSU’s Health Sciences Center, Agricultural Center and central and north Louisiana campuses — the total deferred maintenance list exceeds $800 million.
The LSU flagship campus hasn’t received any funding for deferred maintenance since 2008, according to facility services officials.
Many of LSU’s buildings were built between 1923 and 1939, a time when there weren’t federal requirements to accommodate people with disabilities. Some of the older buildings don’t have accommodations like elevators for wheelchair-bound people and sprinkler systems for fire protection.
“Some of our oldest buildings are 85 years old,” said Jason Droddy, LSU’s executive director of external affairs. “If they were a person, they’d be on Social Security right now.”
According to a facilities assessment, 68 percent of the LSU campus is more than 25 years old, compared with an average of 59 percent at peer institutions.
Droddy said outdated facilities and equipment hurt LSU in two ways. First, some buildings are so outdated it can affect academic programming. He noted that at LSU at Eunice, some ventilation hoods in the chemistry department are not operational, which has forced students to alter their class schedules.
The other issue is being able to attract students.
“No student wants to come to a facility that is not in good repair,” he said. “We do the best to maintain buildings with the highest traffic possible.”
Judith Schiebout, curator of the LSU Museum of Natural Science, said she’s embarrassed by the condition of several buildings that hold some of the state’s most precious artifacts, historical documents and scientific discoveries.
Twice she’s had pipes burst over her office, and recently, while on the third floor of the Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex, she saw a pile of plaster and ceiling tiles crumbled on the floor.
“They told me not to worry because it wasn’t a leak; it was just the ceiling falling down,” Schiebout said with a laugh.
LSU Manship School of Mass Communication professor Robert Mann has been chronicling LSU’s deterioration on his blog, visiting and taking photos of some of the buildings in the worst shape to try to bring attention to the conditions.
Much of the damage is cosmetic — like mismatched floor tiles, peeling paint and damaged furniture. But often, the issues are more serious, like flooding, mold or termite damage. Mann said that since he’s been blogging, he’s received a long list of invitations from faculty and staff at buildings across the campus to visit, all trying to impress him with the deplorable conditions they work in.
“It’s disgusting and appalling for our students and faculty to work in an environment like that,” Mann said.
At the Dalrymple Building, he said, the tap water in the labs is “filthy and unsafe to drink.” There’s also no hot running water in the second-floor labs.
In 2014, a massive chunk of concrete ceiling collapsed in the Studio Arts Building, fortunately over a holiday break when no students were around.
“People see a lot of shiny, new buildings, but there are many, many more examples of rundown buildings that need to be replaced,” Mann said.
Droddy said LSU’s top priority is to revive the Huey P. Long Field House, which alone has $10 million in deferred maintenance costs. About 65 percent of the former pool house is unusable, and the building houses the School of Kinesiology, one of LSU’s fastest-growing programs.
But given the overall state of the budget, LSU officials say they’re not holding out hope that ample funding will be made available for infrastructure.
“The reason we’re here is because this state has had recurring budget problems dating back to the early ’80s, and we’ve had to elect to invest in people instead of bricks,” Droddy said. “Again, we’re looking at a scenario where we’re going to likely have to invest with our faculty and students over facilities.”
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