The student population in the United States continues to grow exponentially in almost every part of the country, yet the majority of school buildings are more than 50 years old. At the same time, facility needs are constantly evolving, driven by changing demographics, new instructional programs and regulatory mandates. These factors make capital planning and budgeting for the maintenance and renewal of school building components a priority and a necessity.

Creating the Ideal Plan and Budget

Proactive school districts are taking the lead in developing what may be considered an ideal deferred maintenance plan and budget. Some, such as Rockwall Independent School District in Rockwall, Texas, for example, plan as far as 15 years in advance. Rockwall recently completed its“Vision 2020” plan, which anticipates its growth and maintenance needs for both new and existing facilities.

“With a current student population of 10,000, Rockwall is a fast-growing school district,” says Dr. Jack Rambo, the district’s executive director for Facilities Planning and Construction.“Our anticipated growth and build-out is 44,000 students, and we realized that we needed to look farther down the road than just the next bond issue. We set a planning target of 20,000 students, which according to our demographer will be reached by 2020. This became the basis for our Vision 2020 plan. The next step was to consider everything we would need within the next 15 years to accommodate this growth, including both new and existing facilities.”

The district formed a group, which visited every building in the district, to conduct a complete inspection of every system from flooring to roofing. Based on the findings, they developed a detailed maintenance plan, which projects the lifetime of every single component in every building and assigns costs to their maintenance and replacement for the next 15 years. “The total amount required told us that we would need three bond issues between now and 2020.”

Projecting what new structures would be required was relatively easy, but determining infrastructure needs in existing buildings was much more challenging, says Rambo, particularly in recently-built buildings where systems were still relatively new. Another challenge was accounting for different phases represented in some buildings. “A building may have been built in 1982 but then had wings added to it through several years,” explains Rambo. Rockwall’s planning process also took curricular requirements into account. “Predicting curriculum for 15 years was difficult,” says Rambo, “but a necessary component to project changes to existing facilities.” A final component of the plan includes an operating fund balance to pay for any surprises. “In case of an unexpected breakdown, all we need is board authorization to pay for repairs out of the fund balance,” says Rambo.

Rockwall’s plan will be revised annually. The district has stayed ahead of the game by planning in this manner for more than 12 years. Attesting to the plan’s success, the district has not had to shut down a single building due to catastrophic system breakdowns. For example, when a central chiller was approaching the end of its life span, Rockwall facilities management planned for its replacement through a two-year period, which allowed it to complete the work during the course of two summers without any interruption of instruction. Bond sales provided the necessary funding.

“When we began planning by evaluating our buildings, it was not with a bond issue in mind,” says Rambo. “The primary objective was to determine what was going to happen to our buildings, regardless of a funding source. If a school district has not yet performed this type of building evaluation, my advice is to begin now. It prevents many surprises and allows the business office to plan its budget accordingly. Remember to allow sufficient time, don’t set unrealistic deadlines and get professional help from engineers and architects,” Rambo recommends.

Basics of Life-cycle Cost Analysis

Unfortunately, many districts only consider immediate needs and address problems with band-aids. This is a sure way to turn facilities into money pits. Proactive school districts (like Rockwall) conduct a life-cycle cost analysis for every single system — mechanical, plumbing, electrical, etc. — and project the cost of maintenance during the next five or 10 years. The analysis considers how long components are expected to last and how much the district is willing to spend to maintain them past their normal life expectancy. This reveals which items are more cost-effective to replace than repair.

Here are the basics of lifecycle cost analysis. Create a spreadsheet that lists the quantity of material, such as roofing, and how much it would cost to maintain through 10 years, versus how much it would cost to replace at a certain point in time. At the point of replacement, the spreadsheet will show that maintenance costs drop exponentially. Without replacement, the spreadsheet will show how repair costs must rise to keep buildings operational.

Most districts, for example, consider that air conditioning units need to be replaced after 15 years. A life-cycle cost analysis of such units shows that after 10 years, maintenance costs begin to rise, and after 15 years, they reach a point where replacement is more cost-effective than continued repair. Several years’ worth of low maintenance costs following replacement more than compensate for the upfront cost of a new purchase. In fact, a life-cycle cost analysis shows that new units require much less maintenance through the next 15 years than the old units would have required in as little as two years.

The rule of thumb for life-cycle cost analysis is — when the cost of renovating a building exceeds 70 percent of the cost of replacing the building, replacement may be the most cost-effective solution. Look at it this way… even if the school spends only 75 percent (of total replacement cost) on renovating a building, that old building’s life span is much shorter than that of a newly-built building, which would cost only 25 percent more. In other words, spending 75 percent on renovation does not produce a 50-year building; spending 100 percent on new construction does. Architects can provide specific formulas for life-cycle cost analyses that take future costs and inflation into account.

The Benefits of Planning

Proactive planning and budgeting for deferred maintenance has the following tangible and intangible benefits.

No interruptions of instruction. A good deferred maintenance plan takes into account all possible needs for the next several years, rather than reacting to problems as they arise. Schools that are not proactive will find themselves reacting to emergencies, which means that facilities may become inoperable when catastrophic breakdowns occur. This strategy helps avoid the political heat that comes from having to shut down a school for a gas or plumbing leak or A/C failure.

Protecting the investment. Without a strategy for proper maintenance, a building can rapidly become a poor investment. A detailed deferred maintenance plan is a common-sense program of identifying and managing weaknesses.

Funding as needed. In the many states where the construction and repair of school facilities are funded by bonds subject to voter approval, proactive districts are able to take better advantage of bond elections. When major expected expenditures are planned for in advance, they can be captured in the next bond issue, leaving scarce O&M budget funds for other purposes.

Better scheduling of renovations. When school districts plan ahead and obtain funds in due time, they can do a better job of scheduling repairs and identifying the best possible contractors for work during summer vacations and other school breaks. Rockwall, for example, had $11 million in bonds left over from its last bond issue thanks to timely planning. “Our plan allowed us to schedule contractors at the most favorable time,” explains Rambo, “so that projects were completed below our anticipated budget. The remaining $11 million will come in handy for any unanticipated capital projects.”

A boost to morale. A district that plans its funding for several years worth of work can determine long in advance which school will be affected during a particular summer. Teachers and administration can be informed well in advance, and upon their return, the beautifully renovated building is usually a good morale booster. It’s also easier for teachers and staff to cope with minor equipment problems for a time if they know the failing component is scheduled to be replaced and when. It follows that communication is a critical part of planning ahead.

Although it is difficult to predict needs and costs for many years in advance, unless a plan is in place, schools will find themselves being reactive rather than proactive, which paves the way to school closures and poor allocation of increasingly scarce funds.

Measures of Success

The point of a deferred maintenance program is not to defer maintenance until the system or component in question has become a money pit, but until the most strategic time to execute the repair or renovation. Keys to a proactive program are stay on top of it, communicate it and get it funded. Once that’s accomplished, the only thing that remains is setting a timeline and executing. Success can be measured by:

the criterion of uninterrupted delivery of instruction,

getting the greatest value from money spent on repairs and replacements, and

minimizing impact on the district’s bottom line by paying for work out of bond or tax funding rather than O&M budgets.

Since schools across the nation are short on funds, maintenance is getting squeezed every day to decrease costs and increase the ability to service with fewer staff doing more work. Thus, if repair, renovation and replacement are anticipated and planned for, the necessary funds are not coming out of the wrong pocket, and that makes a big difference.

JONATHAN S. ALDIS is vice president of SHW Group, LLP, an architectural and engineering firm with six office locations in the United States. SHW Group has a 57-year heritage specializing in educational facilities. For more information, call 972/701-0700 or visit .