Quality learning environments have been found to exert a positive influence on students’ educational performance. Research indicates that it is not important if the school building is old or new, but that it provides a comfortable, well-lit, healthy learning environment. So, it is important to take care of existing buildings and make sure the learning environment is optimized.
It is also wise to remember that most people expect public entities to take reasonably good care of community assets. Not doing so typically leads to less than favorable responses from the community to requests for operating budget increases or bond elections.
What maintenance, repairs, updates or improvements are important to consider today – and into the future – and what is the process for doing so?
Facility Conditions Assessment
A facility conditions assessment can identify changes that may be needed to existing buildings in order to adequately support educational programs. The assessment thoroughly examines facilities to determine their structural and functional integrity, the remaining useful life of major systems and components, such as heating and cooling systems and roofs, and standard maintenance or repair issues. The assessment should include a considerable amount of detail along with estimated costs for repairs and improvements that are identified.
Following are examples of questions you should ask about your facilities.
- Are the structures sound? If not, what problems exist?
- Are the mechanical/HVAC systems in good working order and efficient to operate?
- Is the electrical system in good working order and adequate for your facilities’ evolving technology needs?
- Are the buildings energy efficient and well insulated?
- Are the roofs sound and in good condition?
- Is your cafeteria and kitchen equipment still adequate to accommodate your enrollment?
- Are all areas well-lit?
- In what condition are the grounds, including parking lots, driveways, walkways, playgrounds and equipment, site drainage, sports fields and other grounds areas?
- Have traffic patterns or means of transportation of students changed significantly such that safety issues may exist?
Once you’ve identified necessary maintenance, repairs or improvements, you’ll need to prioritize them based on need and then, of course, determine how to fund those projects.
Standard maintenance issues, such as heating and cooling systems and roofs, affect the operational efficiencies of a building as well as the learning environment. Deferring routine maintenance on these big-ticket items can wind up costing school districts far more down the road than if that regularly scheduled maintenance had occurred. Although deferring maintenance for a short period of time due to funding constraints can be reasonable, engaging in this practice for any extended term can have dire consequences.
If your district has not adequately planned and budgeted for maintenance and improvements, you will discover that short term plans provide short term relief but this approach has substantial implications for long term costs.
Comprehensive Facility Master Plan – A More Effective Approach
A comprehensive facility master plan can save millions of dollars. Simply put, a facility master plan should have two major components:
- A facility conditions assessment, as discussed above, but with consideration for the long-term, which will be determined by
- A forward-looking plan to address future needs from projected growth or net attrition issues. Questions to ask when considering future needs should include:
- How will enrollment changes affect the need for spaces?
- Where is enrollment growth or decline occurring?
- What may cause enrollment changes (+/-) in the future?
- Can we expect similar changes as in the past or something different?
- Will we need to remodel, expand or build additional schools?
- How far in advance will we need to prepare for these facilities?
The facility conditions assessment that is performed for your facility master plan should be more in-depth than periodic assessments that are performed to review the status of your structures. The existing individual spaces and amenities of older facilities should be fully evaluated to determine their capability to adequately meet current educational specifications and to accommodate anticipated, future, instructional programs. Such an evaluation is also necessary when considering construction of additions or building new schools.
If deficiencies are identified, it may be possible to include the needed improvements in the proposed capital construction plan and address the question of equity across the district. Many routine improvements to existing facilities can also be incorporated into annual capital plans as part of the capital reserve budget. This might include large ticket items such as repair/replacement of roofs, boilers, HVAC systems, windows and more. However, if costs are too high, they may be included in a capital improvement plan financed by a bond election or other larger funding approach.
Besides determining costs, be sure you have covered all the bases. Let’s take the example of a window sill on which paint was continually cracking and peeling. While it may appear that it’s a simple scrape and repaint issue, you may need to dig a little deeper to determine the root cause of the peeling. It could be that the roof was leaking down the wall and causing more problems than just the obvious peeling paint. Consequently, it is critical that a facility assessment be extremely thorough and conducted by a professional team of architects and engineers. As the old saying goes, “You can pay me now or you can pay me (a lot more) later.”
The facility assessment should also address efficiency and utilization. Step back and look at the bigger picture. If certain schools are underutilized it’s a good idea to include them as part of the solution for providing adequate capacity. This may require only very simple actions such as overflow busing (temporary solution) or adjusting attendance areas (a long-term solution but not without controversy). Or, the solution may require reconstructing a building for a different purpose, which could very well be a major undertaking.
Failure to fully assess current facilities deprives the district of a potentially cost-effective solution that many constituents will likely notice, a factor that will not be favorable when it comes time to ask for public support. Sound facility master plans aid greatly in garnering support from your local community. Understanding and documenting how your school district will ensure that students receive a good education in a safe, healthy space will help compel voters to support the planned programs and approve applicable funding mechanisms. By demonstrating that you are looking out for the students’ best interests, you can:
- Adequately support academic goals
- Design spaces to meet changing instructional strategies
- Minimize long-term costs
- Protect and preserve community assets
A comprehensive, well-researched facility master plan will:
- Support the district’s mission and vision
- Provide a safe and healthy learning environment
- Accommodate both support and administrative functions
- “Program” facilities to implement your district’s educational specifications
- Address improvements required at existing schools
- Forecast needs for future facilities
- Offer solutions to accommodate enrollment growth (or decline)
On too many occasions, we’ve found more bandages than long-term solutions, which can cost a district millions of dollars. Smart planning up front not only saves school districts money but makes room for more palatable changes ten and twenty years down the road. When considering short versus long-term solutions consider the most important questions: How detrimental is inaction to our students’ academic progress? What’s best for our kids? Creating a facility master plan can be a complex process, but taken step-by-step, you’ll have the confidence that you’re equipped to serve your student population optimally, both now and in the future.