Among the first questions school board members and administrators often ask regarding aging facilities are: “What will it cost to bring our schools up to date?” and “Should we remodel or demolish and start over?” Attempting to answer these questions at the outset of your planning is leaping way ahead of the basic information required to make sound decisions about the future of your facilities.

While important, these questions can only be answered with data that comes from understanding the demographic situation and a school’s educational specifications. Conducting the planning process correctly will give you the data you need to make well-informed decisions.

There are many things to consider when determining whether or how to rebuild America’s schools. A compilation of information from across the country suggests that it would require more than $400 billion to upgrade K-12 facilities and infrastructure, much of which was constructed 40 years ago or more. For the last several years, construction costs for school districts have approximated $12 to $14 billion annually across the United States. These staggering numbers lose meaning when tackled at the local level, the area most often responsible for funding those improvements.

Proper planning in rebuilding requires that the issue at hand be managed as a continuous process, not as an event. An overall strategic plan serves as the foundation to this process and improves the likelihood that the important factors will be researched and reviewed on a timely basis, making the essential, unbiased information available when needed.  So, retrenching a bit from the earlier questions, we should instead ask: “How will we know if we should improve our existing facilities or replace them or neither?”

Again, the two most important factors to consider when looking at whether or not to improve existing facilities are the demographic situation and educational specifications or facility programs. 

When reviewing demographic information it is crucial to determine what changes have been taking place and whether they will continue in the same direction or are expected to differ. For example, a building that was constructed 50 or 60 years ago likely has an attendance area that has changed substantially from when it was opened. In fact, the attendance area may have been modified several times over the years. Demographic fluctuations, new housing construction, competitive forces — e.g. private and charter schools — and more likely drove those changes. The key driver for the demographic analysis is what is expected to happen in the future and why.  When analyzing this situation, good understanding of what forces have been affecting enrollment and what will drive the student population in the future is required. Some of the relevant factors to consider are:

Is the area aging out and becoming populated with people outside child bearing years? Will a younger population be moving into the area in the future?

Does the area’s housing compete well with what young families want?

Can the resale of existing housing compete with builders’ incentives in other areas? If not, what are the implications for regeneration/turnover?

Is any redevelopment planned or imminent? If so, what type of housing is expected and what are the prospects for student generation?

Is the area gentrifying and causing student generation change? If so, what changes are occurring or expected and how quickly will it change?

Are the demographics changing such that the demand for different educational services, such as special education, are increasing or decreasing?

Is student generation too low to justify keeping a school open in the area? If so, what should we do with it?

Of course, many more questions will arise as you venture through the process. As is evident, a lot of homework has to be done to accurately anticipate educational needs and spaces required based upon demographic changes. This applies regardless of whether the school serves a new area that is still building homes or a fully built area that is experiencing cyclical demographic changes.

In the case where continuing to operate an existing school is not justified, options may be limited and are often unpopular, especially when considering closure. I strongly encourage school districts to examine ways to repurpose those buildings if possible. Some uses to consider may be localized or serve a larger area and include dedicated pre-schools, child find services, day care or an alternative school. In addition, it could be valuable for the community to consider other public uses that may or may not be complementary to schools, such as a library or senior citizens’ center. I have seen several articles advocating the benefits of bringing in senior citizens to read with young children, a major benefit for both age groups. The point is to plan well in advance for these inevitable changes and the repercussions on both students and the entire community.

The second issue, determining educational programming needs, is ever changing and more difficult to anticipate. Technology and jobs have been changing so rapidly that today’s kindergarteners will be graduating from high school into an economy where jobs that haven’t even been invented will be available. Consequently, it will be difficult to design spaces and buildings that accurately anticipate needs in five or 10 years, let alone 40 to 50 or more years. In the Winter 2015/2016 issue of SEEN magazine two different articles extolled the advantages of including teachers in the educational specifications process and even gaining students’ perspectives. These are the people most affected by school facilities on a daily basis and should absolutely have influence on the built environment. Students can be especially insightful regarding what circumstances work for them and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t work for them. That being said, I still wonder if that’s enough. 

One aspect of facility programming that seems to be missing from most if not all educational specifications is input from employers.  These are the people who will engage our youth when they enter the work force. Thus, it seems appropriate to include key business leaders in the process to answer questions such as:

What kind of working environment will students find at their place of employment?

Do employees work individually, in small teams or in large groups?

What kinds of tools, technologies, etc. are used?

Is mobility required? If so, with what kinds of equipment?

What amenities are prevalent or needed? For example, lighting, equipment, furniture, etc.

What skill sets are most important for the work place environment?

Educational specification processes typically account for a few ideas from outside the K-12 academic environment. Most often it considers what has been done recently and research of academics on “trends.” I’m not convinced that even doing both of these is ever truly enough to conceptualize and design spaces that will be adequate for future educational purposes. 

Another concept worth considering is whether to build a permanent facility that will last 40 or more years, as is often the case. On the other hand, is it more feasible to build facilities with a shorter “life span” in mind? This solution would enable remodeling or rebuilding at least part of a facility relatively inexpensively when needed to better serve students and the community.  Many businesses have adopted just such an approach because of the rapidly changing market conditions they experience. In the May 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Vijay Govindarajan authored “Planned Opportunism” about just such approaches. He cites instances where the technology or product provided becomes easily copied or obsolete within a relatively short period, e.g. when a patent expires. When this happens the business sells that product line or drops it completely and begins anew with other services or products they’ve been developing along the way. While it seems counterintuitive to engage in such a short-term endeavor, it can make economic sense in the long-term. The question I have is: “What if we could build schools where a portion of the facility could economically be rebuilt or remodeled periodically?” This would allow more frequent improvements that could at least attempt to keep pace with the rapidly changing workplace environment that students will face upon graduation. The biggest hurdle that could be faced with such an approach could well be convincing voters that these designs and expenditures would be the wise thing to do. However difficult that might be, it shouldn’t preclude examining the advantages and disadvantages of such facilities and their potential positive effect upon students’ education.

When considering whether or how to rebuild America’s schools, a plethora of questions must be addressed. I suspect that many of the typical school’s core subject areas and common spaces will not change substantially in their function for some time to come, and perhaps they shouldn’t.  However, competitive forces and products continue to change more and more rapidly in the global economy, thus affecting the workplace in ways we may not be able to accurately anticipate. As a consequence, it could well be quite advantageous to seriously consider providing more malleable spaces that could help better prepare our students for the unpredictable future we face.

Denny Hill has been working with school districts, local governments and land developers for over 30 years, helping guide the decision-making processes through all phases of school district and infrastructure planning, development, and operations.  He has served as a consultant and advisor to many school districts, addressing the gamut of situations from rapid growth to declining enrollment and the implications for facilities.  Denny was the planning director for Douglas County School District (Colorado) during the time when it the fastest growing county in the nation.  Prior to these endeavors, Mr. Hill worked with a consulting firm specializing in socioeconomic impact assessments, financial feasibly analyses; and public finance.  He was also an Instructor of Economics at Kansas State University.

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