Facilities Guidelines: What's the Point?

Many states have guidelines that outline standards for educational facilities. In most cases, the organization that is responsible for the standards has numerous opportunities to review renovation and new construction documents during the course of a project. This ensures that the facility is in compliance with the standards.

If a facility is not in compliance with the standards, then the project comes to a screeching halt until the changes are made that bring it into compliance. In talking with officials in six different states, project stoppage is the only penalty for noncompliance, regardless of how the project is funded. Additional penalties are not necessary, as project stoppage alone is costly and time consuming.

That’s the main similarity among school facility standards. Otherwise, every state has a different reason for having standards, and the standards themselves vary greatly in detail.

The Beginning: Six States’ School Facility Guidelines

The Arizona School Facilities Board was established after 1992, when“several school districts sued the state,” says Interim Executive Director John Arnold.“The constitution requires a general and uniform education system. The school districts said that basing capital construction on local property wealth led to an ungeneral and nonuniform education system. The court agreed.”

As a result, the Arizona legislature passed Students First, which established the Facilities Board to develop quality adequacy guidelines. The guidelines help fulfill the law, which says that each school must have everything necessary and appropriate for a student to meet state academic standards.

Similarly, West Virginia’s standards were developed as the result of a lawsuit. “The School Board Authority came into existence because of an equity lawsuit,” notes Executive Director Clacy Williams. “Now, when we build to the standard, we’re driving equity into the situation for all students.”

Conversely, the Ohio School Facilities Commission developed standards in 1997 when the state school board suggested standard building designs for prototypical grade groupings when there was an understanding that there was going to be a significant increase in funding from the state to school districts.

“We reached out to a number of other states,” says Franklin Brown, planning director. “We learned that standard building designs never work out because they don’t engage the minds of everyone we would serve in the school district. We learned that, when it came time to raise money to build, we wouldn’t have everyone’s support. We decided the best approach may be standards that could be flexible and meet the needs of individual school districts.”

Ohio’s standards were thus created from a document that the state department of education had instituted in 1965.

Florida’s facility standards were also developed in relationship to funding. The state has been giving money to school districts for construction since the 1950s, in return requiring approval of educational plan surveys as a systematic way of determining needs. “As that process was developed through time,” says Spessard Boatright, director of the Office of Educational Facilities, “educational specifications were developed. After 1995, the Florida building codes began to want to incorporate a lot of different pieces, so our standards were included in the Florida building code, like a supplement of state requirements for education facilities.”

Responding to a different need, California’s School Facilities Planning Division “was established to help school districts plan, select sites and build schools,” says Fred Yeager, assistant division director. It is one of three departments that respond to facility standards. The second is the Division of State Architecture, which looks at seismic, fire and other safety issues. The third is the fiscal division.

Finally, Gary Marek, director of School Facilities for the Texas Education Agency, has only a limited understanding of the origin of his state’s facility standards, partly because they’ve been around for so long and partly because he came on staff after they were developed. “In 1991, the state legislature instructed the state board of education to adopt school facility standards,” he begins. “They became effective in 1992.

“In 1997, the law changed,” Marek continues. “The state moved the authority to adopt school facility standards from the board of education to the commissioner of education. In 1998, he readopted the standards from 1992.”

The Requirements: Taking a Closer Look

Just as there’s a unique story behind each state’s facility guidelines, there’s a uniqueness to the guidelines themselves, as well as what they accomplish.

Arizona’s standards, which set minimum adequacy guidelines, were adopted in September 1999. “Since then, we’ve had only a couple of minimal changes,” says Arnold. “Our guidelines range from temperature controls to the soundness of the building.”

When the law was first passed, the state paid to bring every school up to the minimum standards as a starting point. It took four years to complete. Now the responsibility is given to the school districts to stay in compliance.

The legislature also asked the School Facilities Board to inspect every school at least once every five years for adequacy. “The system hasn’t been in practice through a long-enough period yet to see if the amount of funding provided is adequate to maintain schools at the minimum established or if it’s too much,” Arnold sums.

Unlike Arizona, Ohio’s facility standards are tried and true. “We have probably built 400 buildings using this document,” says Brown. “It’s been updated and refined every year since 1997, so we think it’s proven.”

Ohio’s standards also offer a lot of flexibility. “We think our requirements are crafted in such a way that you can’t build anything other than a high-performing, excellent educational space,” says Brown. “There is variation in all the materials. For example, you can choose rubber membrane, shingle or standing seam metal roof. There are no materials or systems that we feel fall below a good level of quality for institutional construction.”

Where Ohio’s standards are updated yearly, Florida is now completing its first update since 1999.

“Our standards cover an array of things and areas,” says Boatright, “including financial, construction, standards and criteria. For example, the state building code may talk about glass and doors. Our code clarifies that it must be shatterproof glass and doors that open to the outside. It’s more of a refinement of the state building codes that are unique and specific for children.”

Florida built its standards through research with experts. “A research person was hired in the early 1980s to compare our standards and program to those of other states,” says Boatright. Once that was pulled together, professionals were used to develop specific spaces. For example, media people set the standards for library spaces; teachers set the standards for primary classrooms. Altogether, the experts worked with the Office of Educational Facilities to validate that the state’s standards were unique, uniform, acceptable and reasonable.

Like Florida, Texas called on experts to revise its standards, propelled by the knowledge that an international building code was emerging. “We involved planners, architects, contractors and more,” says Marek. “We added detail enlarging the minimum requirements of science classrooms and libraries. We added safety provisions and expanded some of the building code language a little bit. We have been using those standards for two years now, and I don’t foresee any need to change them unless the legislature dictates it in an upcoming legislation session.

“Our standards are very basic compared to other states,” Marek continues. “And they are minimum standards, so they’re not outlandish by any means. If we didn’t have them, I’d worry that, as construction prices go up, there’d be a trend toward tiny classrooms just to keep costs down.”

West Virginia’s School Board Authority also wrote its standards with the help of experts, by borrowing standards from other areas, looking at CEFPI’s national averages and their School Facilities Handbook, and updating an existing document from the 1970s.

And, like Ohio, the standards include some flexibility. “The districts need some flexibility,” says Williams. “If a school district has maintenance people who are trained on a specific brand of HVAC equipment, it doesn’t serve anyone to require that district to purchase a different brand when replacing equipment. The state could probably save money by purchasing HVAC equipment through one vendor on a statewide bid, but it would not necessarily meet the districts’ needs.”

Also like Ohio, West Virginia administrators review the standards at least annually. “It’s a continual evaluation of what the standards are and what they need to be,” Williams notes.

The result is the state has a document it couldn’t function without. “It defines what a building is from our perspective,” says Williams. “It also helps us control budgets. Most people want to build more than is needed in order to have their names over the front door. That’s not necessary, and it’s not fair to tax payers.”

Finally, California’s facility guidelines are unique on the administrative side, as noted earlier. The School Facilities Planning Division focuses on student safety and the educational appropriateness of the designs. “The guidelines help ensure that schools are built in response to their educational program needs,” says Yeager. “We preach the educational specifications process: that your design supports the program you want to deliver.

“In addition, a lot of our standards deal with the size of the classroom,” Yeager continues. “School districts are often faced with limited budgets. Our standards say a classroom must be a certain size, unless you can come up with a reason why it should be less, other than a budgetary reason.”

As noted, facility standards help states accomplish a number of things, including meeting minimum goals, establishing equity and protecting students. All in all, they’re an excellent way to ensure that facilities provide what’s necessary for educating students.