The new C.B. Jennings Elementary School in New London, Conn., includes a generous amount of masonry.
The new C.B. Jennings Elementary School in New London, Conn., includes a generous amount of masonry.

A few weeks ago, I helped at a food pantry in the parking lot of what had been the Our Lady of the Angels school on Chicago's West side. Near where I was handing out food was a small memorial marking one of the nation's most infamous school disasters caused by fire.

On Dec. 1, 1958, 92 students and three teachers died when fire struck the school where almost 1600 people were inside. The structure had been built in 1910, but had passed a City of Chicago fire inspection a few weeks before the tragedy. However, it passed only because at the time, older structures were exempt from adopting the most current fire safety rules. The school was a brick wall structure, but its interior was constructed with wood.

My late father-in-law was a boiler inspector at the time and had to go back and look at the structure's heating system. Whenever he described the scene, it brought tears to his eyes. He said that the event radically changed the way public officials looked at enforcing building codes in schools and other learning environments.

Not surprisingly, the educational market now is one of masonry's most important segments. And thanks to the craftsmanship of our contractors, masonry provides our nation's students a great level of safety.

In the next few months, we are going to have a renewed opportunity to help safeguard our nation's students. On March 17, the U.S. departments of Treasury and Education announced $11 billion would be available to issue qualified school construction bonds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, what many call the Stimulus Act.

This may be the boost our contractors need to rev up the industry. “Recovery Act school construction bonds provide low-cost borrowing to build and upgrade schools, which is a win-win for communities across the country,” says Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin. “The projects funded with these bonds create jobs today, building modern schools to prepare our kids for the global economy of tomorrow.”

Since 1958, architects and school boards have come to recognize the other attributes that masonry construction brings to school buildings. Currently, these attributes are often bundled into the concept of sustainability. I'm worried that many of our customers take masonry's best attributes for granted.

While sustainable construction can be good for masonry, it can also open the door to other building materials and systems in areas where fire safety should be paramount. Over the last few years, some school districts have opted to use other wall systems for their non-load bearing walls. The gypsum industry has done a great job promoting its product as a system that matches masonry. They use their ability to conform with the ASTM E-118 test as a discussion point in opting for cost-saving features.

Our industry has dozens of marketing pieces with strong messages on fire safety. There's even a YouTube segment sponsored by the International Masonry Institute that shows the difference between drywall assemblage and masonry.

I urge you to use these valuable resources to spread our message. We will only retain our proper share of the school construction market when school boards remember that masonry offers safe and healthy havens for our nation's future leaders.