A Nearly $2B Effort

Developing and implementing a large capital improvement program is never an easy proposition. Invariably, close cooperation is required among several interested parties including the owner, the designer, and very often, a bevy of municipal agencies. The task is even more complex when the project is a massive five-year, $1.8B capital improvement program to rebuild the entire Philadelphia School System.

The program devised by the Philadelphia School District (PSD) was nothing less than a complete restructuring of the educational system. Its principal goals were to improve high school options, phase out middle schools, alleviate overcrowding in the elementary schools, and bring school facilities to a state of good repair. The program, whose first five-year phase will be completed in 2009, has four major components:
  • construction of at least seven new high schools, each with an enrollment of between 800 and 1500 students;
  • construction of three new elementary schools serving 800-1000 students and construction of nine additions or annexes;
  • major renovations of numerous facilities, including roofs, facades, windows, exterior/interior doors, science and multimedia center upgrades, MEP upgrades, and food service areas; and
  • major renovations necessary for conversion of several facilities to different grade configurations.

Implementing the Program
URS Corporation was chosen by the PSD as the professional program management team to integrate with the existing school district staff in various departments, including design and construction services, real property management, grade and space planning, environmental management services, and the newly formed Office of Community Outreach. The integrated team became the newly organized Office of Capital Programs and collectively, the group is known as the Philadelphia School Improvement Team (PSIT). Its objective was to provide design, construction and financial oversight, coordination, and management of every project funded under the Capital Improvement Program.

The team’s initial challenge was one of both internal and external coordination. Internally, it was necessary to make certain that the PSD staff and the consulting team agreed on the project’s priorities and how to proceed. The external factor was equally critical and more difficult to achieve. It involved getting local and regional governing agencies to support the PSD initiatives and gaining community support for the restructuring of the school system and the manner in which it would be financed.

Funding and Financing
Of course, funding and financing were of critical importance. The Capital Improvement Program is being funded primarily through bond funds. The school district relies on various fund sources from both the state and county. Currently, SDP has secured funding for $1.8B of the proposed $2.5B in projects through FY 2013. In order to prioritize needs and categorize projects, a district-wide assessment was performed incorporating itemized descriptions and estimates. Further, to maximize the state “plancon” reimbursements, projects were reviewed to incorporate more specific classroom requirements as to add further focus to the educational needs of the school.

Educational Priorities
When it comes to capital improvement programs, school projects are among the most complex, for they involve an educational process that spans age groups ranging from five to 18. Among the elements to be considered are 1) the development of educational standards and a program of requirements, 2) recommendations for the temporary closing of schools as construction proceeds, 3) the creation of complete new design standards, and 4) the development of a new pre-qualification process for construction contractors and managers and design professionals.

The Program of Requirements designed for the Capital Program is best described as an itemized spreadsheet that represents the Existing Educational Standards vs. New Educational Standards and finally a Requirements column to highlight the minimum necessities for meeting the new educational standards at a particular school. This tool is important in providing a platform for designers to identify individual project with ease.

Based on the amount of work required at some schools, it has been possible to keep students in school while renovations are being performed in other areas of the school. It is a great priority to provide this option to as many schools as possible; however these decisions are made carefully to protect the student population and the surrounding communities’ interests.

Each school and each project deserves the same opportunities for successful completion. To meet that objective, new design standards were necessary. The new standards were developed with the expertise of the teams’ professional design staff, district educators, and local construction and project management staff alike to ensure that the best processes and products would be used for schools under the capital program. Final decisions about the standards were made using a multitude of factors, such as day-to-day conditions at the schools and life-cycle costs. With an eye to the future, the standards also considered elements that could meet LEED standards without overextending budgets.

After carefully considering needs and design factors for the Philadelphia schools, we were faced with the challenge of finding the most qualified designers, contractors, and construction managers to deliver the final product — a new or renovated school or system upgrade. To do this, a pre-qualification process was created to identify these businesses.

Vital elements of the application include project experience, safety records, and financial capabilities. Firms are qualified at different levels to allow for small and large firms to compete on an even playing field for projects.

Meeting the Challenges
Numerous challenges had to be met by innovative solutions. Among these were availability of designers, construction managers, contractors, and an experienced labor force, weather conditions, subsurface conditions, and economic issues. With the wealth of work that is taking place in the Philadelphia area as well as globally, resources have been very tight, causing material costs to spike, as well as overhead and profit margins. This is daunting for a program that relies on public funding and has to maintain strict budgets. These challenges have been met by widening the pool of contractors to bid on projects and by implementing budget-review controls during the design phase to alleviate budget overruns and prevent project scope creep.

State-of-the-Art Programs
The complete 10-year building plan, which is scheduled for completion in 2013, includes the repair of existing buildings, replacement of old high schools with sophisticated facilities that will accommodate state-of-the-art curriculum models, and innovative programs. Existing high schools have undergone extensive renovations to support their new academic programs. The plan will alleviate overcrowding in middle schools and put magnet programs in each high school.

Many existing middle schools will be converted into small high schools and elementary schools with modern science labs, libraries, and recreational facilities. As middle schools are converted, the district’s elementary schools will be converted into K-8 schools to support the new grade configuration.

In addition to improving the educational facilities, $45M will be used to improve school grounds, sports fields, field houses, and appropriate recreational facilities; $16M will go toward lighting improvements and retrofits to make schools safer and more energy efficient; and $30M will be used for electrical upgrades to support computer labs and automated curriculum.

In the past three years, 299 construction projects totaling $461.5M have been completed and another $318M in projects are currently in design. A total of 184 design consultants and 166 construction contractors have been pre-qualified, and SDP design standards and the Program Procedures Manual have been developed. A community outreach program has been established to assist in enlisting the involvement of MBE/WBE firms and community involvement. The capital improvement program also makes significant life safety improvements in each of the school buildings. Currently, the district is managing 120 construction contracts valued in excess of $553M.

Patrick Henwood is senior vice president of Capital Programs for the Philadelphia School District, and Vincent R. Pagliaro, Jr. is program director for URS Corporation in Philadelphia.