Looking Back in Order to Look Forward


Long-term capacity planning is successful when leaders have a keen eye on demographic changes. When executed consistently, school districts are better able to keep operating costs lower and educational programs optimally funded over the long haul. 

Operational inefficiencies that result from inconsistent facility planning and their adverse effects on academic programs are quite avoidable when districts develop a comprehensive, fact-based approach.  This approach must include respecting capacities of existing schools (looking back) and incorporating realistic expectations of long-term demographic changes (looking back and forward).

Changes in educational approaches have persisted and will likely continue. As in the past, future educational program changes will exert a substantial effect on capacity planning.  Even so, considering the history of why previous capacity decisions were made, the implications of new or changed design capacities, and how these changes affect facilities dynamics is essential if school districts are to truly maximize spending on students in the classroom.  Here’s why. 

Looking Back
The following example applies to nearly every school district with which I’ve worked but one in particular stands out.  This relatively small school district (enrollment less than 8,000 students) was in the early stages of rapid development stretching into its boundaries.  Its tax base to support bonding and, therefore, construction of schools, was woefully deficient.  The school board and administration understood that they wouldn’t be able to provide adequate space for kids without using unconventional means (for this area) and consciously decided to avert unpopular options as best they could.  These unpopular options included very large class sizes and split sessions among others.  

The school board tasked the administration with examining year-round education regarding its potential for both academic success as well as capital cost savings.  Reviewing year-round operations in other states, the district determined that a four-track schedule was the most popular even though it did not provide the most efficiency in terms of additional capacity.  This schedule required an elementary school with three classrooms per grade, which, when operated on year-round, resulted in adding about one-third to the building’s capacity.  Stated differently, it made three classrooms per grade provide the same capacity of four classrooms on a traditional calendar schedule.  Thus, the district began planning elementary schools in this configuration.  (Note that three mobile classroom buildings were also planned for each site to absorb additional students until more permanent facilities could be constructed.)

Looking Forward  
Academic configuration aside, the more important part of this planning effort was in understanding what might happen to demographics over the years and what the impact would be on the schools that were built.  As subsequent experience verified, enrollment growth in the rapidly expanding community was led by elementary school age students.  As these students graduated through the system and peak enrollments ebbed at each school level, the question is: “At what level will enrollment settle for the long-term?”  This level is then the KEY planning tool for determining what capacity should be built.  If a district takes a one-point-in-time “snapshot” of demographics it could result in planning capacity that is too small or too large for the enrollment that will be realized 20, 30 or 50 years down the road. Such an error can have considerable consequences on operating costs.  
The example district referenced above conducted thorough research to estimate the long-term level of enrollment anticipated and planned capacity accordingly.  This capacity was established at 550 students for a Kindergarten through 6th grade school using three classrooms per grade.  The year-round calendar and mobile classrooms would be implemented when needed and justified.  The facility capacity plan anticipated returning to a traditional calendar when enrollment reached its long-term level.  Thus, the additional capacity afforded by the year-round calendar was expected to last only until the larger community approached maturation.  

This school district also experienced relative stability in leadership at both the board and senior administrative staff level for about 20 years.  (Yes, this is extremely rare.)  As with everything else, change did eventually come to the district.  As leadership changed, so did support for the year-round calendar.  Further, the need for additional capacity-providing mechanisms had also declined.  In an effort to hasten elimination of the year-round calendar, the new leadership directed elementary school design to include four classrooms per grade.  However, attendance areas had been planned well in advance using the smaller school capacity.   When the new larger design capacity was implemented it was apparent that no attendance area adjustments were made to offset the larger capacity. 

Another complicating factor was introduced by the school board when several charter schools were approved.  In the early years of the rapid growth, charter schools were needed to assist with resolving capacity deficiencies and they also provided options the conservative community desired.  As time progressed, far more charter schools were approved and opened.  However, the locations of these schools were approved in a fairly concentrated area and, seemingly, without consideration for traditional school capacity planning (state statute did have a substantially limiting effect on this option).  

Now, roll forward another 10 years. Even though the district then had more than 50,000 students and was still growing, the decline in demographics in the more established areas occurred as originally expected.  The resulting, and initially anticipated, level of student generation in the originally planned attendance areas is adequate to support the traditional elementary schools plus perhaps a few additional students for schools of choice.  However, because of the larger capacities, the longer-term enrollment levels resulted in several schools operating at well less than optimal capacity.  

The Bottom Line
Operating schools at less than 85 to 90 percent of design capacity can cause significant problems with staffing academic programs, especially for kids with special needs and classes that typically enroll fewer students, e.g. in middle and high schools.  This situation is exacerbated if a district’s fiscal position is weak and residents are not supportive of tax hikes.  In the above case several schools are operating at 50 to 60 percent of original design capacity, an extremely difficult situation to rectify or, if not resolvable, to allow to continue.  This could easily result in reduction of important programs, decreased staffing levels, larger class sizes, increased busing to get students to the needed services, and more actions that would negatively affect costs and learning.  If nothing changes, this district may have no choice but to consider other options such as moving existing charter schools (currently operating in leased spaces) into the under-enrolled buildings or examining potential school consolidation and closure.  Neither of these options would be well received by the community, as has been the experience in many districts.  

This example demonstrates the adverse conditions that can be introduced by inadequate planning.  On the other hand, when districts roll up their sleeves and develop a comprehensive plan based on facts, many operational inefficiencies can be avoided.  School districts must have a clear understanding of existing schools’ capacities and incorporate realistic expectations of long-term demographic changes.  Change is the only constant when it comes to capacity planning, but considering both the history of previous capacity decisions and the implications of new ones will go a long way towards maximizing spending on students in the classroom.  


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.


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