Deferred maintenance at Missouri’s public colleges and universities has swelled to an estimated $1.4 billion, and education officials fear that unless the state is able to help fund needed repair projects across its campuses, the problem will worsen.

That figure was released earlier this month by the Missouri Department of Higher Education in its 2018 review of the condition of buildings, parking lots, roads and other property across public institutions in the state. The report, which is based on information gathered through staff visits, data and conversations with stakeholders, highlights the ability to fund deferred maintenance needs as the biggest issue facing college and university campuses today.

“We have some extraordinary college campuses in Missouri that we should all be proud of,” Doug Kennedy, chairman of the Coordinating Board for Higher Education, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, when you look behind the scenes, you see a growing number of issues that can negatively impact learning environments for students, teaching environments for faculty and lab space for researchers, and that hurt Missouri’s efforts to recruit college students from out of state.”

The statewide review, which was last ordered in 2009, aims to “help drive capital improvement decisions in the future,” officials with the higher education department said. Because deferred maintenance needs are so great, the Coordinating Board for Higher Education will request funds for maintenance and repair needs from the state in fiscal year 2020 rather than endorse requests for new construction.

“Addressing deferred maintenance and identifying funding to support new construction will be a major challenge in the coming decade,” Zora Mulligan, Missouri’s commissioner of higher education, said in a statement.

Other problems facing higher education, as identified by the report, include inadequate quantity and quality of space on campuses, new demands on and rising costs of technology and related infrastructure, instability of funding for capital improvement projects and the need for improved safety of students, staff and data.

Unmet needs at MSSU

Missouri Southern State University has more than $45 million in building and infrastructure needs, including more than $23.8 million in deferred maintenance. A “significant” portion of that is replacement of HVAC equipment, roofs, lighting, roads and parking lots, according to the report.

State budgeting for maintenance and repair of higher education property is part of core appropriations for higher education institutions. As state appropriations increase or decrease — the latter has been the case in recent years — that has a direct effect on maintenance and repair budgets.

Schools also are seeing other non-negotiable costs rise, taking up more of their share of the general revenue. At Missouri Southern, rising utility costs and an ever-increasing contribution amount to the Missouri State Employees’ Retirement System mean that the university’s annual $400,000 maintenance budget is increasingly likely to be squeezed, said Jeff Gibson, budget director.

Bryan Goodwin, director of the physical plant, said priority in deferred maintenance is given to immediate needs. As an example, a water heater serving the residence halls recently broke, and replacing it jumped to the top of the to-do list, he said. But that often means that a less urgent need, such as new paint in a building or the repaving of a parking lot, gets postponed further, he said.

“You fix what you need to,” he said. “Everything is reactive; you can’t be proactive.”

University administrators say their buildings and grounds are well kept, and student safety comes first when needs arise.

“Obviously, we do the best with what we are given and will continue to put safety and learning outcomes first,” said Rob Yust, vice president for business affairs.

But it’s the long-term consequences of not being able to keep up with maintenance and repair needs that have officials worried. Because of current state law, they can’t raise tuition above the rate of inflation without risking a financial penalty, and the state’s ability to fund such projects is dependent on its annual revenues and the priorities of lawmakers crafting the budget.

“Our first thing to think about is what is in the best interest of students,” Yust said, referring to deferred maintenance needs. “In the long term, if we don’t address stuff like this, we’ll have to look at alternative methods of educating and housing our students, or they will go to another state.”

Gov. Mike Parson’s office did not respond to a request for comment. State Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage and vice chairman of the House budget committee, could not be reached for comment.

Capital priorities

Aside from deferred maintenance, the renovation of Taylor Performing Arts Center is Missouri Southern’s top capital priority. The theater, used by MSSU and the public alike, has not had a major repair or renovation since it was built in 1975; the university proposes its renovation would cost $20.8 million.

A recent inspection of the stage and its rigging system, which had been deemed a safety hazard, had produced the recommendation that it be closed until the rigging system could be replaced. The system has been removed entirely, but the result is that the stage cannot be used for certain performances or events.

In addition, the theater needs new acoustic curtains, a modern light control board and an updated sound system. A new stage floor and carpet are needed, and a hydraulic pit cover for the orchestra pit would “reduce the risk of injuries” to staff who must remove and replace it for performances, according to a report that Missouri Southern prepared for the statewide review.

More accessible seating is needed for individuals with disabilities, and the restrooms on the main floor — accommodating a total of six people at any one time — aren’t nearly sufficient for the capacity of the theater, which is 2,000 people. The women’s restroom, moreover, isn’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Other capital priorities of Missouri Southern are:

• The replacement of aging chillers, air handlers, boilers, fan coil units and fiber optic networks. Some pieces of equipment are nearing the half-century mark. The estimated total of these upgrades is $15.1 million.

• The construction of a pedestrian bridge across Duquesne Road between the main campus and the parking lots around the football stadium, the installation of closed-circuit TV cameras in all buildings and grounds and the installation or replacement of aging sprinkler systems in buildings across the campus. The estimated total of these upgrades is $4.8 million.

Missouri Southern has addressed some capital needs in the past decade, most notably the renovations of Reynolds Hall, the science building, and Hearnes Hall, the administrative building. Those projects were the university’s top priorities in the state’s 2009 facility review.

Taylor wasn’t identified specifically as a priority at that time, but it was still flagged in the 2009 report as being in need of attention: “The center’s stage is outdated, and its orchestra box must be manually constructed and taken down each time the stage’s configuration changes. The stage’s curtains are no longer fireproof, and the theater’s overall appearance is dated. Finally, the facility is not fully ADA compliant.”

The 2009 review, like the current report, also requested campus safety improvements, identifying the need for crosswalks, security cameras and access controls.

‘Not able to keep up’

Crowder College reports more than $10 million in facilities needs. But its top capital priorities are all considered “new” construction and unlikely to be funded by the state in the near future, said Amy Rand, vice president of finance. Those projects are:

• Renovation of the Cassville campus to add office and classroom space, create nursing and science labs and install interior connections to link all buildings for safety. Approximately $1.33 million of the nearly $2.7 million needed has already been appropriated, for which college administrators are grateful, Rand said.

• Construction of a new diesel technology building on the Neosho campus with up-to-date classroom space, equipment and technology for students.

• Renovation of the Neosho campus’ McDonald and Newton lecture halls, which are more than 50 years old and originally served as U.S. Army buildings.

Included in the $10 million price tag is $1.3 million needed in deferred maintenance in areas such as plumbing, electrical and heating/cooling systems. Those tasks are frequently delayed and postponed due to a lack of funding, Rand said.

“Safety and security of students and staff are the No. 1 priority, and we never defer anything in that area,” she said. “But you put (other) things off. We do the necessary things that are needed, but the things you don’t have to do, you don’t do. In the end, it’s more costly because you’re not able to keep up.”

Rand said the college budgets for “typical maintenance and repair” for needs such as replacement of heating units, new paint or repairs to plumbing. But those needs are always there, no matter how much the budget is able to fund in any given year, she said.

And there’s little to no new money from the state to address them, she said. State funding allocated to Crowder College for maintenance and repair has declined from $219,367 a decade ago; now at $191,281 annually, the amount has been stagnant since 2014, according to the Department of Higher Education review.

“Where that hurts us is we build new buildings, but you’re not getting any more money to maintain or do those continual repairs that are needed,” Rand said.

Emily Younker is the assistant metro editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.