School administrators and elected officials face difficult choices when deciding where to allocate limited budgets for school building and renovation. Always a delicate task, making choices on what to fund and when, has become even tougher today due to shrinking municipal revenue and cuts in state assistance.

“For a while, we had the benefit of healthy tax revenues boosting school construction programs, which in turn, led to widespread support for new school initiatives,” laments one school superintendent wrestling with his 2005-06 budget.“As the revenue picture has changed, everything has changed.”

The reason for undertaking a master plan is to identify all of the systems’ facility needs and priorities. Contributing issues often include: increasing enrollments, aging and non code-conforming buildings, bad accreditation reports, buildings that have not kept up with changing educational and technology needs, increasing special education needs and the need for specialty teaching spaces.

A well-conceived and thorough system-wide school study and master plan can also help resolve inevitable conflicts and objectively support school construction priorities and decisions. Elected officials and school administrators can rely on facts rather than opinions to support their recommendations. Smart planning leads to smart decisions.

Consequently, what should school officials and community leaders specifically expect from a system-wide study? Beyond a thickly bound report crammed with charts and tables, few school committee members or department heads know what they should demand from their architect or consultant. Here are six essential elements to guide a system-wide school study program.

State Clear and Measurable Goals

A well-developed, system-wide study should be based on the“big picture” of long-term educational goals. Master plans that succeed through the long-term are bold in concept.

Don’t be afraid to set the bar high from the outset by basing the plan on a clear statement of the community’s goals for education. After all, only by establishing lucid and measurable goals will stakeholders — parents, taxpayers, elected officials and teachers — be able to measure progress and compare the options as the program moves forward.

Consider the lasting value of stating shared goals. This statement allows stakeholders to dispassionately evaluate their program as it evolves and to ask the right questions: Are we meeting the goals? If so, what are we learning about our initial decisions? If not, what do we need to do to redirect the plan and current actions to get on track?

One mid-sized community came to see their shared goal as keeping class sizes low. Knowing this was the objective, the system study team was successful in creating several options built around preferred teaching styles and the use of teachers in the school system.

Conversely, too many cities and towns revise their grade structure to accommodate the buildings they have. Changing of the grade structure to accommodate the current buildings is often a “Bandaid” solution that will likely need to change again in a few years. We encourage school boards to set shared goals to achieve the most educationally sound system possible, and then determine how it can be accomplished.

Take a Thorough Look at Data: Current and Projected

Like it or not, number crunching is a pivotal step in arriving at solutions for community education. But if you know in advance the information you need to uncover, it helps. To be of lasting value, number crunching and program definition should include:

mapping the grades of the system and estimating desired class sizes;

projecting enrollment in the next 10 to 15 years and testing any third party demographic projections through informed analysis of local housing, employment and economic changes;

defining all the basic educational and support spaces to be included — classrooms, specialized teaching areas such as labs, music rooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums/fitness centers, cafeterias, computer labs, libraries and offices, as well as teacher planning and support spaces; and

forecasting future needs due to emerging trends — distance learning, community use of school facilities, technology demands — estimate the corresponding impact of these trends on the number, size and sophistication of the spaces.

In a plan completed by the Town of Marblehead, Mass., the school superintendent reviewed enrollment projections compiled by a third party. As part of the master plan for a new high school, the superintendent documented his belief that school enrollment would be significantly higher than the outside projections.

Much of his rational was based on need to provide facilities for all students living in the town, not just those currently attending public schools. They, in fact, found that once new facilities were completed, many students returned to the public school system from private schools.

Investigate and Assess Physical Conditions of All Existing Facilities Before any decisions can be made, a thorough and accurate assessment of all existing school buildings must be made. Assessment is too often done on a “fly-by” basis, without probing into the details of existing mechanical, structural, electrical and life-safety systems. Insist on a complete “due diligence” phase, including an engineering analysis on the cost of refurbishing or replacing obsolete systems.

With ever-rising utility costs, the expense of gas, electricity and water use has become a major budget problem in many school systems. Handicap access to most of today’s existing schools is difficult. A long list of issues related to maintaining older school facilities, even in meeting basic building, energy and safety codes, comes into play in these evaluations. The most efficient way to cope with these sometimes intimidating issues is to take a system-wide approach and to set priorities for improvement based on the overall goals, objectives and needs.

Older schools are often inefficient in building size, having a higher gross area to net educational area than new construction (additions or buildings). It is not unusual to realize renovating a larger (inefficient) area is nearly as expensive as the alternative new construction.

Develop and Analyze Options

Based on the opportunities and constraints discovered through the due diligence and its preceding data development, the study team can begin the crucial development of alternatives. Typically, options presented at this point include all feasible alternatives including renovation, new construction, consolidation, redistricting, alternate grade structures and/or appropriate combinations of these actions, presented by school and by site.

It is essential that each option be accompanied by all known cost, schedule and phasing considerations, described as thoroughly as possible. The pros and cons of each option should be presented and compared against the goals of the project. The study consultants should facilitate a point-by-point discussion of alternatives, and any lingering questions should be investigated before narrowing down the options.

An honest evaluation of existing school sites for building additions as well as potential sites for new schools is critical. Whether for new construction or renovation, ruling in or out any suggested option must revolve around a factual evaluation of dozens of key considerations.

For example, in the regional Massachusetts school district of Concord – Carlisle, options included renovating the high school and building an addition at the current site or building a new facility on the same site. Ultimately, new construction was selected because the constraints of the site and building were considerable. In addition to the appeal of a state-of-the-art high school facility, the solution overcame difficult site circulation issues and reduced disruption because of a shorter construction period.

Select the Preferred Option

By far the most important element of any system-wide master plan is the recommended action: the preferred option as it is often called.

The rationale for recommending an option (or a combination of available options) needs to be concretely tied to the community education goals and philosophy documented in the initial step. Also, the preferred option must be grounded in the reality of the fiscal and physical site limitations identified in the study.

The discussion among the stakeholders of the study revolves around three key questions:

What makes the most sense from both a program and a budget perspective?

Can we accomplish what we need to without disrupting the education of our children?

Will the option(s) we are considering stand the test of time?

Stakeholders must agree upon priorities when developing the preferred option. The strategy and tactics of the proposed program need to be described clearly and supported with documentation. It helps to use the 5 W’s — what, where, when, who and why — to demonstrate key points.


f new construction is proposed, the report should include a compelling rationale that sets out how the new school building will benefit all stakeholders and taxpayers. If renovation/addition is the desired option, an approach to phasing the program to minimize disruption needs to be advanced.

Support the Plan

Supporting the plan does not start after decisions have been made but rather at the start of the master plan process. Involving the community through the entire process gets taxpayers (those who will ultimately make the decision) thinking positively about how and why decisions were made.

Yet even in the positive environment, and regardless of which option is selected, community leaders should expect some to embrace the plan and others to object. The value of the architect and consultant team lies in their combined ability to anticipate the most likely questions and objections, and to address them in advance.

How can this be accomplished? The architect, engineer and consultants involved in the study should be ready to:

provide coherent and easily understandable graphics, cost data and documentation supporting recommendations;

assist in researching any other school system approach applicable to the current situation or problem; and

suggest appointment of an independent committee to review and help advance the preferred option(s) following the completion of the study.

Master plans often map out a series of projects to be accomplished during a 10-to 15-year period. Things change in the life of a community, so may the Master Plan. You should revisit and update the Master Plan every five years or so to confirm that the study recommendations are consistent with the communities’ needs.

Often, the role of the architect and study consultant is simply to keep the program on track while helping to avoid the pitfalls that can occur along the way. An experienced pro can set an example for the entire school system by keeping an eye on the big picture, and by reminding all of what they can accomplish together.

PHILIPJ. POINELLI, AIA Poinelli is a principal with Symmes Maini & McKee Associates, an architectural, engineering, planning and interior design firm based in Cambridge, Mass.