Making the Most of it

When budgets are tight — and when aren't they in education? — administrators have to find ways to provide and maintain facilities without draining their budgets. Fortunately, advancements in technology, new ideas in construction and design, and savvy management strategies are available that enable schools and universities to spend their money more wisely and efficiently.

Here are 10 ways that administrators can try to accomplish more with the resources they have:

Facility assessment

An education institution, especially one with many facilities spread across numerous sites, will have to deal with countless requests for repairs, maintenance and equipment upgrades. But how is a facility manager supposed to choose whether a request is legitimate and which projects get priority? Without a system in place, those with the most political clout or who make the most noise may be able to nudge their requests to the top of the list. How schools handle facility repairs and upgrades becomes more critical as buildings age.

Many institutions have begun monitoring the condition of their facilities more closely so officials can make wiser decisions about repairs and upkeep. A detailed facilities audit provides valuable information about the age and condition of a campus infrastructure and helps administrators identify the greatest facility needs and allocate their budget accordingly.

“It helps us prioritize projects, so that we are spending money on the right things,” says Steve Kraal, vice president for facilities management at the University of Texas at Austin.

With the data provided in a facilities assessment, Kraal says, the university may decide that instead of “patching” a problem — recaulking a building's leaking windows, for instance — it might be more cost-effective in the long run to fix the problem and replace the windows with a more efficient model.

Computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS)

Technology allows schools to monitor their maintenance practices more closely, and identify and respond to problems more efficiently.

Tom Perry, director of engineering services for Shawmut Construction and Design, says that when his company completes a facility and turns the building over to the owner, it provides detailed information about the structure, the equipment and the maintenance needs.

But the volume of information can be overwhelming, and building owners may not be able to absorb it all. Items fall through the cracks, equipment that needs regular maintenance is neglected, and systems fail.

One answer, Perry says, is including a CMMS as part of the construction package. The system tells facilities managers what is included in the building and when maintenance will be required.

“We introduce it at the construction stage,” he says, “so they have it from day one when we turn over the keys. It can spit out preventive-maintenance work orders, and gets the owners off on the right foot.”

Commissioning

Once construction of a school facility is completed, the construction team turns over the building to school officials. But is the finished product what the customer ordered?

Commissioning is a method schools and contractors use to make sure that all of a building's systems are performing as intended. The U.S. Department of Energy's National Best Practices Manual for Building High-Performance Schools says commissioning typically involves four phases — pre-design, design, construction and warranty. Frequent communication helps identify and resolve problems throughout the project's life.

“A properly commissioned school can result in fewer change orders during the construction process, fewer callbacks, long-term occupant satisfaction, lower energy bills and avoided equipment-replacement costs,” the manual says.

The manual identifies several benefits from building commissioning: proper and efficient equipment operation; improved coordination between design, construction and occupancy; improved indoor air quality, occupational comfort and productivity; decreased potential for liability related to indoor air quality or other HVAC problems; and reduced operation and maintenance costs.

More frugal budget ideas

Performance contracting

Schools and universities typically cannot afford the upfront costs of major equipment purchases or system upgrades within their existing budgets. Seeking funding from state governments or seeking borrowing authority in a bond election is never a sure thing. For those institutions, performance contracting is a way to circumvent budgetary restrictions and acquire the desired system upgrades.

Schools enter into a performance contract with a company that agrees to pay the upfront costs of installing or upgrading equipment or systems in a facility. The company guarantees that the new, more efficient equipment will reduce a school's operating costs. The school saves on operating costs and uses those savings to repay the company that footed the bill for the installation of the new equipment.

Life-cycle costs

When designing and constructing new facilities, schools that emphasize the costs of a building over its entire life can save money compared with those that focus only on the initial construction costs.

Features such as high-efficiency lighting and mechanical equipment can make a project's construction costs higher. But those systems pay for themselves over the life of the facility through energy savings, reduced maintenance expenditures and improved student achievement.

Schools with limited budgets and numerous needs often are tempted to save money by pursuing less expensive construction methods and materials. But in many cases, that approach proves to be shortsighted; over the life of a building, the costs of maintaining and repairing less durable, less efficient systems and equipment can make that path more expensive than spending more upfront.

Outsourcing

Sometimes it's cheaper for someone else to do it. That's the thought behind outsourcing. Schools determine that for some services, they can save money by contracting with outside companies instead of performing the work in-house.

In addition to money savings, schools may find that private companies may have more expertise and better equipment to accomplish a job more quickly.

Transportation, food operations and janitorial service are among the areas most often contracted out. Some systems have taken the concept even further — in St. Louis, the school system outsourced management of the entire district in 2003 by hiring Alvarez & Marsal, a New York corporate turnaround firm to overhaul the district's operations. After a year that included sizeable budget cuts and numerous school closings, the district hired a superintendent with an education background.

Online procurement

Most education institutions have computer networks and Internet access, which makes it possible to conduct much of their purchasing online.

Conducting business online can save schools money by streamlining the purchasing process and eliminating the many bureaucratic steps and piles of paperwork that often come as part of the package. Online procurement also can give schools more thorough reporting of financial transactions, and bring institutions in contact with more potential vendors.

Many schools have been able to join purchasing cooperatives with other institutions or government agencies. Combining purchases leads to more competitive prices because a cooperative can buy products and equipment in higher volume.

Alternative fuels

Every day, millions of children climb aboard buses that take them to school. Whether they have their own fleet or enter into a contract with a private company, most districts incur significant costs to provide transportation for students.

One way to reduce those costs, especially in times when gasoline and diesel prices have soared, is to use alternative fuels to power school buses.

The Tulsa (Okla.) school district has a fleet of 190 vehicles — buses, trucks and cars used for driver education — that are fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG). The U.S. Department of Energy says that using alternative fuel saves the district $300 to $500 a year per vehicle, compared with gasoline or diesel.

The district uses the savings generated from the fuel to pay the loans and equipment costs for the vehicles.

Cool roofs

Having the sun beat down relentlessly on a school roof can cause significant heat gain in the building. Cool roofs are made of highly reflective material — they typically are white and have a smooth texture — and keep the building from absorbing the sun's energy. Cool roofs can significantly reduce cooling loads, according to the national Best Practices Manual for Building High-Performance Schools.

“Cool roofs … are highly cost effective, especially in (a) hot and dry climate,” the manual states. “There are other benefits as well. Since solar radiation is a major cause of roof deterioration, cool roof coatings can significantly increase the life of the roof membrane. Cool roofs also can help make the whole community cooler by reducing the ‘heat island’ effect.”

Sharing space

Finding partners to shoulder some of the costs of a facility can ease budget woes for schools and universities.

In Lake County, Ill., north of Chicago, 16 public and private colleges and universities are partners in the University Center of Lake County, a facility geared for students looking to complete their degrees. The partnership of schools is a non-profit organization whose budget comes from the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

Most of the courses offered in the center are junior- or senior-level undergraduate courses, but students needing more basic courses can attend the College of Lake County in Grayslake.

That's where the partnership is building a 91,000-square-foot, $24.5 million facility that will open later this year. Funding for the building came from the state and county, as well as federal grants.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

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