Whose Job Is It Anyway?

According to School Planning & Management’s 16th Annual School Construction Report, more than $14.5 billion was spent on school construction in 2010. Even though that number has been declining since 2005, $14.5 billion is still a significant investment in school infrastructure! With housing prices falling in many areas and tax bases declining, many school districts are finding it difficult to obtain additional funding for new construction and renovation of existing facilities. Consequently, it is even more essential to obtain the best value for resources invested. Devising and implementing good planning and construction processes are the keys to success.

What Are the Features of a Sound Plan?
Planning for new construction is definitely a circumstance where “beginning with the end in mind” is imperative. The plan has to consider the technical elements of enrollment forecasts compared with building capacity, educational adequacy of the facilities, as well as soundness or deficiencies in building systems and materials. If a district is seeking a short-term solution to bulging or declining enrollment, the process and plan would be very different than a 10-year master planning process. A school facilities plan should also be aligned with the district’s strategic plan so that facilities support the district’s educational vision and goals.

Allen Abend, an architect/educational facility planner and former deputy director of the Maryland Public School Construction Program, agrees that clear goals are important. He provided the following examples of quantifiable goals that express “big picture” values:
  • “Provide equity in the quality of facilities across the district,
  • Provide a safe and healthy environment for building occupant,
  • Provide facilities that are accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities and
  • Meet district standards for school size, and avoid substantial student overcrowding.”

Another important element of an implementable plan is history and culture. A plan can be created simply through analyzing condition, capacity and educational adequacy data, but that plan may very likely hit a stumbling block if neighborhood history is overlooked. Closing or consolidating schools without a deep understanding of neighborhood context and concerns can cause even the best data-driven plans to implode.

David Waggoner, vice president with Heery International, Inc., in Raleigh, N.C., has extensive experience with facility assessments, planning and managing building programs that include this community perspective. Waggoner related an experience that Heery had with Charleston County Schools (S.C.) through engaging the community during a facility condition/master planning process. A series of meetings were held at each school to obtain input from the participants and share findings. A questionnaire was developed that allowed teachers, parents, staff, students and community members to walk through the buildings and gather data in a consistent format. The questionnaires were compiled, the findings were discussed and the information obtained was folded into the plan. The result of this process was a very comprehensive assessment of each campus and a deep understanding among the participants of the schools’ condition and needs.

A good plan should also be realistic. Can the resources, including time, money, staffing, etc., be obtained to implement the plan? Since very few communities have the resources to meet all facility needs at one time, intelligent phasing of a plan can help allay concerns about “pie in the sky” planning.

What Processes Work Well in Assessing Facilities and Developing a Master Plan? What are the Best Roles for the Various Participants?
Abend suggests that, “updating or developing educational specifications is a necessary early step prior to assessing facility needs. Educational specifications describe in detail educational and related activities and corresponding facility characteristics and provide one resource for developing ‘Indicators of Quality,’ which are clear standards used to evaluate existing facilities. The educational specifications are also used to direct the design process and to assist in conducting post-occupancy evaluations one or more years after completion of a construction project.”

According to Abend, many methodologies can be effectively used to assess existing facilities using the district's indicators of quality. These approaches include questionnaires, interviews, walkthroughs, focus groups and observation. Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages regarding effectiveness, time required and cost, and he suggests that using more than one technique will improve the quality of the assessment, provide more useful information and increase the accuracy of information.

In the case of a local school district, Waggoner and Abend both believe that the school district should be in charge of the process. Depending on the district, the owner may be personified by the superintendent, the school board or a facilities staff person. The owner is responsible for determining the project objectives and monitoring the process.

Abend states, “It is important to recognize that the planning and design process takes considerable evaluation, creative thinking and technical knowledge, and is only as good as the experience of the school district managers and staff. Most school districts in the United States are less than 5,000 students with the majority of those districts less than 1,000 students. Often, district staff has limited facility planning experience and technical knowledge. In these cases, an experienced school facility planner should be employed who can provide structure to the planning and design process, provide information about educational research and about school architecture used in other school districts. The consultant's role is to expose the district staff to alternatives, but not to influence educational practices with which the district, not the consultant, will have to live for years to come.”

Assessing and planning facilities at the local level can be a daunting challenge, and expanding the process statewide requires an extremely thoughtful, comprehensive structure. Melanie Drerup, deputy chief of Planning with the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC), has extensive experience with their building program. The state of Ohio provides an assessment, planning and construction delivery framework for school districts in Ohio, as well as matching funding on a sliding scale that factors in the local wealth of the district. The objective of the program is to provide great quality school facilities for all students throughout the state in an equitable manner, no matter the degree of local wealth or poverty.

The OSFC utilizes consulting firms to conduct assessments of facility condition and educational adequacy needs for buildings and sites. In addition to evaluating building systems and materials, assessors factor in issues that relate educational adequacy and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) considerations, as well as safety issues that may need to be immediately reported to the district.

Since these assessments are conducted throughout the state by several different assessment teams, cross training is imperative for consistency. Every year a post-assessment of work completed that year is conducted to determine areas in which the assessments were accurate and useful and to develop alternative approaches in areas that need improvement.

Local districts are asked to have an architect and their facility staff review the assessments to build agreement around the assessors’ conclusions and uncover additional issues that the assessors may not have discovered. Local insights are also useful to provide feedback about educational program needs or program adjacency concerns. For example, the local architect and school staff can point out issues such as the need to relocate a school’s administrative offices to the front entrance in order to monitor access to the building.

Sometimes when school facility plans are developed everyone assumes that the only important issues are “warm, safe and dry” buildings. The OSFC includes the requirement for functional and energy-efficient building systems, but there is also a strong emphasis on providing school buildings that will support a variety of state-of-the-art educational program delivery strategies. The OSFC Design Manual, which documents the space and system requirements for new and renovated buildings, also has a section that discusses the connection between educational program delivery best practices and facilities.

Before a project begins, the OSFC organizes a structured, professionally facilitated partnering process. The goal of this process is to clarify roles and responsibilities that will result in smoother project implementation. The facilitators are drawn from a pre-approved list of consultants, typically architects, attorneys or project managers. The partnering facilitator convenes the sessions and facilitates the dialogue among the local owner representatives, OSFC staff and consultants. The outcome is a written project agreement that delineates the roles, responsibilities and contact information for key project participants. The OSFC has found that formalizing the process helps to ensure that the participants are engaged and respectful of the commitments they make to the process and to each other.

Whether a planning process involves a state-wide building authority or is managed entirely at the local level, the elements of sound planning should be in place: agreement on goals that can be used as Indicators of Quality for assessing facilities; collection of accurate data at the appropriate level of detail; understanding community expectations and engaging the community in the dialogue; and clear delineation of roles, responsibilities and accountability among all participants. Mindful planning produces results that support students and communities for many generations.