Maintaining Facilities

This issue of SP&M is a very special one, featuring our Ninth Annual Education Design Showcase. In it you will find the best facilities that we have to offer our students. They have been well planned and designed, and are special places for learning. A great deal of time, effort, and money has been spent on these facilities. But one challenge remains… maintaining them.

We have been talking about the condition of school facilities since the 1980s. The last GAO report on school facilities estimated the need for repairs at $127B, a number that has been growing exponentially. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” gave schools a D rating. Yet, with all this data in hand, maintenance budgets at many school districts are still among the first to be cut. Many school boards have the attitude that if you can’t see it, and parents aren’t complaining, it must not be a problem. Few are aware of the relationship between facility condition and student achievement. And when facility needs are in competition with educational priorities, facilities lose. In many cases, the funds allocated for maintenance primarily cover “emergency” repairs, solving the immediate problems, but ignoring the source of the problem — the need for a regular maintenance program. Maintenance is a “pay me now or pay me later” proposition, and the pay me later scenario is not a pretty one. While repairing a leaky roof may cost $50,000, remediating the mold problem can cost $1M. Without regular maintenance, too many of our emergency repairs are of the million-dollar variety.

In 2007, more than $20.7B worth of construction was put into place. Inadequate maintenance, lack of proper funding, insufficient staffing levels, limited (or non-existent) staff training, and poorly developed district policies puts this investment at risk. It is rare to find a school district where the maintenance staff is not being asked to do more with less — less money, less staff, less training. Add to that the fact that while the number of custodians and maintenance personnel is dwindling, the areas and complexity of the equipment that they are responsible for continues to grow. Professional development, a requirement for the teaching staff, should also be a requirement for the maintenance and custodial staff. Unfortunately, in most districts training for maintenance personnel is non-existent. Many of those who are trained leave for better paying jobs in the private sector, while many of those who stay are faced with doing the job without the proper tools or training.

Take, for example, heating and cooling. Air conditioning used to mean opening a window or turning on the electric fan. Now it is part of a building automation system with automatic temperature controls, occupancy sensors, indoor air quality monitoring, and more bells and whistles than I can name. It takes more than a Swiss Army knife and roll of duct tape to keep this type of system working, yet in many cases these are still the tools we provide. If done right, the HVAC systems would be commissioned and staff would be trained — guaranteeing that the system is tuned to work efficiently, lowering utility costs, prolonging the life of the equipment, and protecting the district’s investment. Yet in reality, you are just as likely to see a HVAC system that has failed because the filters were just stacked on top of the unit in a rush to get the job done.

The lack of priority that many districts place on maintenance has far reaching effects. The obvious is the deterioration of our buildings and equipment, or the voiding of warranties. The less obvious is the negative effect of building conditions on student achievement or on future public support for education. The bottom line is, we need to place the same significance on maintaining our current facilities as we do on building new ones.