In virtually every school construction project, there comes a time when the desires of the educators clash with the realities of the budget.

Quite properly, when planning is being done, school representatives should ask for everything needed to support the best possible educational program. But, unfortunately, as in all aspects of life, most of us can’t get everything we want; we have to make compromises. In school construction, a key question is who is going to determine what those compromises must be.

Typically, construction managers and architects point out opportunities for savings. They know the cost of things, and they know what can be eliminated or changed without affecting other parts of the project so, logically, they are the ones who list the possible cuts and how much each will save.

Unfortunately, they do not always weigh the educational consequences of their choices. That’s something that must be done by the educators. It is a foolish district that does not insist on being at the table and making the decisions when cuts are proposed.

In one situation, a district was replacing old schools. Principals and teachers had developed a program that was dependent upon providing large classrooms.

When it became apparent that there was not going to be enough money to build all the facilities needed, the facilities group charged with running the project looked at what was being designed, realized that the classrooms specified were larger than the state’s minimum and simply cut them back to minimum size to save money. No educators were at the table, so no one asked what effect that might have on program or if there were other means to cut costs that might be considered.

As a result, the buildings, while far better than the ones they replaced — cleaner, better organized, warmer, able to support technology — still limit the district’s preferred program because the classrooms are not large enough.

By contrast, in another district, early in the design phase, the architect announced that there would be no air conditioning. He explained that the project was running over budget. Eliminating air conditioning would solve the problem. In defending his decision, he said that in another district“we provided air conditioning ,but the district never uses it because it’s too expensive to run.”

The superintendent told the architect to find some other way to cut the project costs. She pointed out that this school will serve many migrant families. Their children need a place to go while parents are working during the summer months. With an air-conditioned building, the district will be able to provide educational and recreational services that will benefit the students and the district. Eliminating air conditioning might be a quick cost fix, but it would gut an important element of the educational program. The architect was told to find other cost saving measures.

Recently, I sat in on a meeting with representatives of the construction manager, architect and superintendent of still another district, one that was about to go out to bid on a project. In order to ensure that bids would come in within budget, the construction managers prepared a basic set of specifications along with a series of“alternates.” The alternates were items that could be added if costs permitted or eliminated if the bid price was beyond the district’s budget.

Several items were listed including air conditioning (why is that so often a target of people who live, work and drive in air-conditioned comfort?), use of less expensive finishes and glass, using larger bricks than the architect specified, etc. Also listed as alternates were a proposed fitness room and a roofline cornice.

Eliminating the cornice, we learned, could save the district more than eliminating both air conditioning and the fitness room. The architect wants to retain the cornice, an aesthetic factor that will look good in future photographs. But, in this case, the district is staying with the project to the very end and insisting that factors that affect the educational program be retained first, while they look for other items in the checklist that could be modified without significantly affecting the program or the aesthetics.

As I said, beware the cost cutters. Some will choose easy ways to save without concern for the educational program. To avoid this, you must be at the table and insisting that educational values drive the final decisions.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."