The Gillett school district in eastern Wisconsin has three school buildings. None has a sprinkler system installed to put out a fire.
The buildings were constructed between 50 and 100 years ago, well before fire codes were updated to require sprinkler systems for all newly constructed buildings. Installing a modern sprinkler system in the aging facilities would be too expensive. And new buildings, for now, are out of the question.
“The only way we could see to replace these buildings would be a local referendum, which has zero chance of passing,” said Wayne Johnson, the Gillett district’s superintendent. “You’ve got folks that don’t have any money, they’re not going to support a referendum to increase their property taxes.”
The Gillett schools are hardly an outlier.
In a survey conducted between Sept. 27 and Oct. 13, 2023, the EdWeek Research Center asked a nationally representative sample of 110 school principals whether the building where they most often work has working sprinklers.
Forty percent of respondents—2 in 5—said no, translating into tens of thousands of school buildings nationwide. Another 13 percent said they’re not sure if the currently installed sprinklers in their buildings work.
For new construction and renovation, schools are required to follow local and state rules typically modeled on guidelines from the National Fire Protection Association, including mandatory sprinkler systems in all buildings larger than 1,000 square feet.
But there are few legal mandates in place for schools to install sprinkler systems in buildings that predate stringent sprinkler requirements, which emerged in the latter part of the 20th century.
The EdWeek Research Center last fall also asked a nationally representative sample of 254 superintendents how many of the school buildings in their district have sprinkler systems installed.
One in 5 respondents said none of their buildings has sprinklers. Slightly less than half of respondents said all their buildings do.
Some school buildings still aren’t technically required to have sprinklers
Fire codes and best practices have evolved in recent decades to emphasize the importance of sprinklers—but not all schools have the capacity to follow best practice.
A handful of high-profile school fires in the 1950s and ‘60s kicked off a slow-rolling national trend toward sprinkler mandates for new schools, said Guy Bliesner, a school safety and security analyst for Idaho’s state board of education. One of those fires, at the Our Lady of Angels Catholic School in Chicago, claimed the lives of more than 90 children.
In the 1990s, states and localities began to more commonly require sprinklers in most new buildings. But some newly constructed schools managed to avoid new requirements for sprinkler systems because they had easily accessible exits on both sides of the building, said Mike Pickens, the executive director of the National Council on School Facilities.
In recent years, though, many schools have tightened security around exits or removed them entirely to improve security.
Now, many schools built in the 20th century face a conundrum: Invest in the exorbitant cost of new sprinklers in old buildings or wait to scrape together the money to entirely replace old buildings.
Installing a new sprinkler system often means construction crews would have to deal with old building materials like asbestos that would need to be eliminated—itself a costly and time-consuming process—before new work could begin.
Then, building-wide work to install new sprinklers could take months or up to a full year, Bliesner said. Many schools, especially in rural areas, aren’t located near another facility that could house students while the building is closed for that work.
Some schools might end up partially protected by sprinklers, using what Bliesner calls the “toadstool” method of constructing building additions next to existing school structures. The new wing has sprinklers, but the old portion still doesn’t.
Paying for sprinklers is a tough ask for many districts
The broader challenge of finding sufficient funds to pay for building improvements also hampers efforts to ensure schools have sprinklers.
Roughly a quarter of states provide no financial aid to school districts for building projects. School buildings nationwide collectively have billions of dollars worth of deferred maintenance. Districts in low-income areas face a particularly steep challenge persuading local voters to support tax increases to fund building projects. And in some states, districts need more than a simple majority of voters to approve bonds for school construction.
On the other hand, failing to install sprinklers can be costly as well. A private school building without sprinklers in Charlotte, N.C., burned to the ground last June. No one was injured or killed, as the building was unoccupied at the time.
A handful of other school building fires in recent years have also happened in buildings without sprinklers.
“At current construction costs, you want to save the property if it’s at all possible,” Bliesner said.
In the Gillett district in Wisconsin, Johnson is confident school leaders are doing everything within their means to prevent a devastating fire. The district’s school buildings are kept “as clean and uncluttered as possible.” And schools follow all recommendations from the local fire marshal, who visits regularly.
Still, those measures don’t fully compensate for a comprehensive, yet currently cost-prohibitive, modernization.
“The reality is, without state or federal assistance, we’re not going to get any decent buildings,” Johnson said.