Quality learning environments have been found to exert a positive influence on students’ educational performance. Research indicates that it is not important if the building is old or new, as long as it is a comfortable, well-lit, and healthy learning environment. It is important to take care of existing buildings and make sure the learning environment is optimized. However, making the conscious decision to maintain facilities, not to mention keeping them updated, is not always easy.
Deferring routine maintenance on big-ticket items, such as heating and cooling systems or roofs, can wind up costing school districts far more down the road than if that regularly scheduled maintenance had occurred. Although deferring maintenance for a brief period due to funding constraints can be reasonable, engaging in this practice for any extended term can have dire consequences.
Many years ago, a group of friends and I were discussing one of our favorite topics, our cars. As young guys did back in the day, we were comparing aesthetics of the cars as well as their performance. One of our friends had an older car that most of us considered a classic and commented that as long as he maintained it well he should expect to drive it for a number of years. Another fellow piped in bragging about how great his Ford Maverick was and that he never had to do anything for maintenance. (Yes, most of us considered bragging about a Ford Maverick to be completely absurd!) I responded that I was sure he meant that he still changed the oil and oil filter regularly, had it lubed, replaced the air filter, etc., taking exception to his lack of maintenance comment as it seemed ridiculous, especially since we were all pilots with substantial training about the importance of maintenance. He responded that he checked the oil once in a while and would put in a quart if it was needed but had never changed the oil and filter or anything else in the car’s 50,000+ miles of operation. Ironically, about two weeks later he piled his family into that wonderful Ford Maverick and headed out on vacation. About 400 miles down the road the engine literally seized up on them (permanently) and left them stranded with no transportation. Needless to say, when he called and asked if someone would go pick them up and bring them back not one person volunteered!
Life Lesson: if you don’t take care of your facilities, don’t expect anyone to support you when you ask for funds to do it – or for other help of any kind for that matter.
It is wise to understand that most people expect public entities to take reasonably good care of community assets. Not doing so typically leads to less than favorable patron responses to requests for operating budget increases or bond elections.
A quality facility assessment reveals the structural and functional integrity of the buildings (such as heating, air conditioning, electric, etc.). This assessment provides the groundwork for understanding what current and future improvements are needed. The second issue relates to capacity and spatial needs to serve the projected student population. Typical questions are:
- Do we have enough space to serve future growth?
- What spaces do we need? Is it elementary, middle or high school or all of them?
- Are academic programs adequately supported by the spaces we have?
Capacity, Utilization and Location Considerations
Perhaps you have enough capacity to serve current and future students, but it isn’t in the right location. Some time ago, a Colorado school district experienced substantial enrollment growth. Apparently, the district overreacted to it because two elementary schools were built less than a half mile apart. Currently this area doesn’t generate enough students to fill even one of these two schools. So how do we solve the problem? The chosen solution was to bus students to the available space rather than build a new school where the children were. As a result, transportation costs are now much higher than necessary and some parents were enrolling their students out of district or in private schools because the public schools weren’t conveniently located. A thorough, forward-looking demographic analysis may have helped prevent this awkward, wasteful and costly situation. (A cost analysis revealed that about 20 years of avoided busing costs would have paid for a new school in the correct location!)
The next question addresses building utilization. What are the consequences if you don’t do anything? All too often districts operate under a “we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing” premise, most times due to lack of adequate funding, insufficient voter support, or other underlying factors. So, you just “do what you have to do”, and not necessarily what you “should do”. Unfortunately, small problems often lead to big ones, costing considerably more than if they had been addressed early on.
The answers we get to: “What are the consequences if you don’t do anything?” sometimes look like any one or a combination of the following:
- With mobile classrooms more than doubling the school’s capacity, there will be longer lines to the bathroom. With too few restrooms, might there be an accident or two along the way? How would that affect students?
- We’ll just get another modular if/when we get more students.
- We can handle the current situation for another year . . . and THEN we’ll make a decision.
- We can’t ask for more taxes.
- Voters won’t approve ….
- Yada, yada, yada….(in other words, just more excuses)
Realistically, if you don’t do anything nothing will happen; except, of course, that you’ll likely be dealing with a much bigger problem the longer you wait.
A conditions assessment should also consider older facilities’ ability to adequately provide for current academic programs. In other words, an appraisal of existing facilities should be conducted periodically to determine if all the individual spaces and their infrastructure satisfy current educational specifications. This is one way to measure whether a building’s spaces and amenities can accommodate the current and anticipated instructional programs. If shortcomings are identified, it is the first step in identifying an approach to rectify them.
The bottom line is that neglecting facility maintenance can adversely affect both capital and operating costs, leaving less money for application in the classroom. Additionally, if your patrons see that the community assets aren’t being maintained, adequate support may not be present for the district at any level.
(Editor’s Note: This article is an edited excerpt from the author’s book, The Essential Guide to School Facility Planning.)
For more than 30 years, Denny Hill’s work has focused on laying a great foundation for education. Through the company he founded in 1996, Strategic Resources West, Inc., Denny has developed an approach that is both flexible and focused, to assist with the creation, design, or redevelopment of K-12 educational facilities. He recently authored the book, The Essential Guide to School Facility Planning, guiding school boards in his 7-step strategic process to save districts time and money. Denny currently is Advising Consultant for School Planning Advisory Services (www.schoolplanningadvisor.com), helping superintendents, CFOs, and other school district personnel achieve their districts’ objectives.