The Facility Condition Assessment: Whose Job Is It?

Atlanta Public Schools (APS) serves approximately 51,000 students in 100 buildings comprising 11 million square feet with a FY18 operating budget of $777.4 million. That’s a lot to manage when it comes to determining facility needs. Jere J. Smith III, AIA, APS’ director of Capital Improvements, is responsible for managing the district’s nearly $2.6 billion in capital asset management and improvement programs. That includes property acquisition, facilities planning, special construction programs, and new facility construction and school renovation projects.

With more than 30 years of management and leadership roles in the land planning, architecture, building construction and real estate development industries, Smith has successfully planned and led development and building construction programs and projects for institutional, as well as commercial and residential, customers. He is a current board member and past president of the Association for Learning Environments (A4LE) Georgia Chapter and a member of the Industry Advisory Board at Clemson University. School Planning & Management recently spoke with him about roles and responsibilities when it comes to facility condition assessments, in order to better understand who is responsible for what portion of the process. Here is his perspective as an urban school district administrator.

SPM: What is the current situation with Atlanta Public Schools’ schools?

Smith: Our buildings are very diverse. We have buildings that are more than 100 years old, and we have brand new buildings. We have no prototype. We are very fortunate to have had an ongoing capital improvement program for more than 20 years. I have touched some buildings twice in terms of renovation. We spend an average of about $100 million yearly on capital improvements.

SPM: The district recently undertook a facility condition assessment. Why was that?

Smith: We wanted to validate our current situation and capital needs in advance of a capital improvement renewal program.

SPM: What did that process look like?

Smith: Because we maintain a pretty lean staff, we opted to issue an RFP and use a third party to complete a facility condition assessment to provide the needed data.

We issued the RFP in fall 2012 and started the work in summer 2013. It took nine months to complete the effort and produce a report. Part of the process included that we would see the data as the process moved forward. We had a lot of our own internal information going into it. I think it’s very important for readers to know that you have a much better chance of success if you have a basic handle on your facilities before going into it. At some point you need to be able to stand up and say, “No, that’s wrong. This is the direction we need to go.” Some people may go into the assessment process thinking it will provide all the answers they need to run their facilities program, but that’s not really true.

We selected Parsons Engineering. Our cost was approximately $.08 per square foot. Once they were on board, we sat down with them to figure out how we were going to eat this elephant-sized meal. After a bit of a slow start, the process gained momentum, and we captured a great deal of information.

We included the instructional side of the house in the process because that is what drives what we do. The assessment had two parts, the facility condition assessment and an instructional adequacy assessment. The latter assessed how well each building was serving our mission: Does it have all the spaces it needs? Are the spaces right sized? Right located? These are things that may not be revealed by simply looking at square footage and a bricks-and-mortar assessment.

SPM: What did you learn?

Smith: Every building received a Facilities Condition Index (FCI) score, similar to a report card. The score is on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being perfect. The higher the score, the less that needs to be invested in that building. A score around 80 indicates that a building is in pretty good shape. The assessment also included an associated cost estimate for building improvements.

We learned that we have some of the best buildings in any urban school district. There were really no earth-shattering revelations: The buildings we thought were good were good, and the buildings we thought were bad were bad. What the report did was quantify what we knew with numbers and provided information that was two to three levels deeper than what we had. It also validated what we had been telling the public, which was important, because sometimes the public perception is that a basically good building is bad. It made the public more aware and provided a level of confidence in what we are doing.

We had to decide how to distribute the information to the public. It was a ton of information. We opted to put reports for each school online for everyone to access.

In Georgia, we’re very fortunate to be able to vote on and implement a local Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). It generates one cent on every dollar spent in the county for school capital projects. As a city district, we share proceeds with the county we’re in, which is Fulton. In Fulton County, it is about a two-to-one split, with the county system getting about $1 billion and the city getting $500 million every year for five years. So you can see that it generates a lot of money quickly in major metropolitan areas, and it has been a blessing to us.

Our focus now is shifting a bit. We are moving from a focus on renovating, adding and building new to upgrading and replacing systems and infrastructure and working to sustain the relatively high level of quality of facilities we have created. Our program also includes capital improvements to technology, safety/security, transportation and athletic facilities.

SPM: Who, by title and/or group name, was involved in the facility assessment process?

Smith: I lead the effort as director of Capital Improvements, along with a project manager who works for me. Overall, however, it was really a joint venture between capital, facilities, operational staff and the instruction division. Specifically, we pulled in operations and maintenance staff, deputy superintendents of instruction, school principals and other instructional leaders, because they’re all vital to providing the necessary feedback on each building.

SPM: What were the roles of each person/group?

Smith: My role was to make sure we maintained progress and continued moving in the right direction. It sounds simple, and it was at some level. But it was also easy to get distracted and bogged on some detail at any one school. We had to bring things back to the center and keep moving at a 5,000-foot level to get all 100 facilities done.

I worked to ensure that interim information and test reports made sense. Sometimes that interim information included typos and glitches, such as indicating a new building was falling apart. Our project manager, Sandra Horton, was critical in organizing and scheduling the instructional side of the house. They are typically so busy with instruction. She was great in getting them to stop, pause, focus and engage on the facility for a moment at a deep level. Their input was critical to the effort’s success.

SPM: Who was responsible for coordinating the process?

Smith: Sandra and I. We worked hard to maintain control of the process, and we were sure to let everyone at the schools know to expect as things moved forward. Parsons representatives assisted and were great with coordinating the process. After a while, progress really picked up, with the Parsons team getting to know the school sites well.

SPM: How often did you have update meetings, and who attended those meetings?

Smith: Initially meetings were at least weekly but, as the process matured, meetings were held every two weeks.

SPM: What was going on behind the scenes during the assessment process?

Smith: There was a lot of researching for information, such as drawings, surveys and history of past work, to provide Parsons with context for their evaluations. We provided them with our design standards and specifications and our instructional specifications so they knew what they were looking for and comparing at each facility.

We also put lifecycle duration and cost to the data as it was collected. For example, how long does a roof last, how long does air conditioning last? Parsons was a great resource and provided a lot of feedback on that. For example, they suggested air conditioning lifecycle should be about 15 years. We countered with 12 years, because we know air conditioning may not last as long here. There was a good exchange of data.

SPM: How long should administrators expect the process to take?

Smith: I think at any major district you’re talking six months plus in a best-case scenario. Our nine-month process may have gone faster if we had had more boots on the ground. However, there’s a benefit to doing it slowly, as we did, in that we could see the information evolve and determine where we needed to shift gears.

Remember that the facility condition assessment is a tool and just a snap shot in time — buildings and systems are naturally going to continue to age, and needs are gong to continue to grow. APS plans on updating that snap shot every three years. Our next update is scheduled for November 2018.

SPM: Whose responsibility is it to take the facility condition assessment and create a plan that prioritizes capital improvement projects, and how far out does that plan extend?

Smith: I do that in conjunction with the executive director of Facilities. We have a detailed plan that goes out at least 60 months, and we have higher-level plans that go out 20 years in some aspects.

SPM: What advice do you have for ensuring the process runs smoothly?

Smith: I believe the most important thing is to know your buildings. You may not know everything, but you can provide whomever you hire with the basic information they need and be able to provide a reality check at any time during the process. We could have taken our hands off the process and said, “Here, do it, and call us when you’re done,” but I don’t know that we would have gotten the depth and quality of data that we got if we had done that. It’s also important to know that this report is not going to be the answer to every problem at every facility. It’s not the end-all-be-all. It’s a tool to manage your facilities and capital programs.