Last month, Vista Unified (Calif.) school officials announced that a much-anticipated new high school campus originally scheduled to open for the 2008-09 school year would not open until the following year.
The inability to open is not because of construction delays, unexpected building costs or the discovery of some endangered species on the site. The $91 million Mission Vista campus will sit unopened and unused because the district does not have the money to operate the facilities.
At the Folsom Cordova district (Calif.), a new $3 million pool at Vista del Lago High School sits unused. Completed in early February as a key amenity at the new $100 million school, district officials determined it could not afford to heat or operate the facility.
As surprising as such scenarios may seem, they are happening more and more. In the midst of robust education construction activity, some communities are finding out the hard way the difference between capital funding and operating budgets.
The disconnect between capital funding for major construction projects and operating budgets once a new facility is opened continues to flourish — often with embarrassing consequences. After years of planning and spending tens of millions of dollars, a community watches as an exciting new building sits unopened and unused because adequate planning and funding to operate the facility were not secured as part of the original capital program.
Institutions often look at construction costs with little consideration for the resources required to open and operate a new facility. Even those administrators that diligently consider life-cycle costs of a building often find themselves having to forgo best practices because of pressures to keep the initial cost of a program as low as possible — which can result in no plan for funding to operate the building once it is completed.
This shortsightedness needs to stop, and we need to close the disconnect between capital costs and operating costs — embracing life-cycle costs of any and every education construction project early in the planning stage.
Agron is editor-in-chief of AS&U.