School Construction Trends

School Construction Trends

Upgrading facilities in a tight climate.

When there are fewer students filling classroom seats and there is less money to address the space needs in areas where there is enrollment growth, the inevitable conclusion is that an education institution pursuing construction and renovation projects will have a tough go of it.

From a national perspective, that’s the situation for most schools and universities. Although some areas of the nation continue to see steady enrollment growth, the general trend for enrollment in elementary and secondary schools is one of a much slower pace of growth in student numbers and, in some areas, population declines. In higher education, some institutions have capped or reduced enrollment because of budget reductions.

Education administrators that move forward in this economic climate with construction and renovation plans are likely to confront tight budgets, dwindling resources and a community unwilling to make facility upgrades a priority.

Despite the many obstacles that can thwart facility improvement plans, many schools and universities across the nation have found various ways to acquire the needed funding and keep their projects on track—through bond elections, state assistance, grants, donations and student fees.

Boomlet Subsides

In the mid-1980s, overall U.S. enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools began to climb after about 15 years of steady decline. The increase in student numbers coincided with a realization among many educators and administrators that they needed to do a better job of addressing facility needs than their counterparts did during the 1950s and 1960s, when the surge of Baby Boomers strained the resources of districts that didn’t have the space to accommodate them.

With a more careful approach to planning that included greater involvement of the public and a greater emphasis on creating facilities that would last for generations, many school systems were able to persuade the voting public or lawmakers responsible for disbursing funds to provide money for new school buildings. K-12 enrollment in the United States rose throughout the 1990s into the early 2000s, and spending on school facilities rose each year as districts sought to increase capacity for their education programs.

But beginning in the early 2000s, the so-called baby boomlet slowed, and national student enrollment numbers stagnated. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), pre-K to 12 enrollment, after reaching 55.3 million in 2006, showed a slight decline in 2007 for the first time in nearly 20 years. National enrollment figures from 1986 to 1996 rose 14 percent; from 1996 to 2006, the increase was 7.3 percent. Projections from 2006 to 2016 show enrollment increasing only 4.3 percent.

Overall enrollment in the elementary and middle grades showed declines earlier. Enrollment in grades pre-K to 8 reached 39 million in 2002, then began several years of decline. As those students move through the system, the declining numbers can be seen in the number of high school students. Enrollment in grades 9 to 12, which had been climbing since 1990, reached about 16.5 million in 2007, but NCES projections show those numbers falling for several years after that.

The declines are more pronounced when the numbers are broken down by region. Public school student enrollment in Northeast states generally has been declining since a high of about 8.3 million in 2002, and NCES projections show the numbers falling to 7.6 million in 2018. Midwest states’ enrollment numbers also have been declining since 2002, and aren’t projected to show an increase until 2014. On the other hand, enrollment in the South region has increased every year in the 2000s, and is projected to keep climbing until at least 2019.

Take care of what you have

The easing of demand for additional space, combined with the difficult economic conditions that make funding harder to come by, has led some institutions to focus instead on maintaining and renovating existing space.

In the Poudre (Colo.) district, based in Fort Collins, enrollment rose about 30 percent during the 1990s. In 2000, the district persuaded voters to approve a $175 million bond issue, and over the next several years, it built a senior high, a junior high and four elementary schools to address that growth. Beginning in 2002, enrollment growth slowed to less than 1 percent a year, and Poudre officials determined that once the buildings from the 2000 bond were finished, the district didn’t need to add any more classrooms.

But Poudre, which has about 26,900 students, had dozens of facilities built before 2000 that needed attention.

"We had enough space for everybody," says Mike Spearnak, director of planning, design and construction for the Poudre district. "So we looked at fixing the building stock we have."

As part of its master plan process, the district conducted a facilities audit in 2007 that assessed the condition of all its buildings.

"Because of the limited amount of (district) facility resources and age of facility sites, significant school repair and renovation needs will challenge the district in the near future," the master plan stated.

District planners reviewed the findings with its facilities staff and community members. As a result, the district put a $120 million bond issue before voters in November 2010, that would pay for an eight-year plan for renovation and maintenance projects at more than 50 district buildings.

"There was no new square footage," says Spearnak. "We had needs as long as my arm, but what we were asking for took care of needs up to only my elbow."

Despite the drawback of not having any a prominent project to highlight in the bond package, the district was able to make its case that keeping facilities up to par was as important as building new facilities. Voters approved the bond proposal, as well as a $16 million-a-year levy increase for operating expenses. Spearnak says the public’s satisfaction with the schools built from 2000 bond money—including two campuses that earned LEED certification for sustainable design and construction—helped establish a level of trust in the community that translated to support at the polls.

The package included $33 million for heating and ventilation upgrades; $18 million for roofing improvements; $12 million for technology enhancements; $10 million for asphalt and concrete work; and $10 million for new flooring.

"We responded to the needs on a community-by-community level," says Spearnak.

Prioritizing need

The circumstances in the Poudre district are not unique. A school system may have sufficient square footage—some may even be shuttering underused buildings—because of stagnant or decreasing enrollment, but it still has essential and expensive repair and maintenance needs. In Massachusetts, enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools has been declining since 2003, yet in the 2000s, the state had more school construction and renovation than any decade in recent memory.

The state’s School Building Authority (MSBA), in its 2010 Needs Study, says that from 2000 to 2009, 68.4 million square feet of school facility space was new construction, additions and renovations—that represents nearly 40 percent of the state’s 173 million square feet of facility space. It also represents an 80 percent increase in construction projects compared with the previous decade, when about 37.9 million square feet was new construction, additions or renovations.

The MSBA, which was created in 2004, notes that before it took control of the project approval process, one problem with all the construction activity in the 2000s is that school systems were able to add space without carefully assessing their needs.

"The former school building assistance program lacked a process to formally verify (a) district’s enrollment projections, leading to school construction projects that were based on unrealistic design enrollments," the MSBA says. "… More than three-quarters of school districts over-projected their long-term enrollment."

Those unrealistic projections are part of the reason Massachusetts has about 1,300 classrooms—1 million square feet of space—that is no longer being used to educate students.

As funding for capital projects becomes harder to come by, those kinds of inefficiencies can no longer be tolerated. Under the MSBA, school construction funding in Massachusetts became a competitive grant program "based on need and urgency."

For instance, instead of accepting a local school system’s enrollment projections, the authority independently verifies the numbers before a project moves forward. Amending the projections has enabled schools to avoid more than $74.5 million in construction costs "from overly optimistic and unverified enrollment projections," the needs study says.

The MSBA also encourages local schools to use prototype school designs to reduce project costs and accelerate the construction schedule.

Projects delayed

Not every state has funding available to help local districts with capital projects. And even in those states that do, projects may remain in mothballs if local districts can’t afford their share of the costs. The Ohio School Facilities Commission has provided local systems with billions of dollars to help build new classrooms, provided that the district comes up with its share of the costs. In the Arlington (Ohio) district, where officials would like to build a $30 million K-12 campus, that requirement so far has proved to be insurmountable. Four times voters have rejected the district’s attempt to win approval of a bond fund for the project.

In Maryland, officials reported to the state’s Board of Public Works that two counties in line for construction funds have asked to delay those projects because local funds are not available. Charles County officials asked the board to delay approval of $6.8 million in funding for a new high school because the school system does not believe it has the operating funds to open the school. Wicomico County has asked the Board of Public Works to rescind approval of $5.2 million in state funds for middle school construction because the project has been delayed.

Sidebar: Endowment Support

Many colleges and universities have relied for many years on charitable donations to help erect new facilities on their campuses. Individual gifts from wealthy alumni or allocations from a school’s endowment can get projects moving toward completion when other means of funding aren’t sufficient to cover costs.

Earlier this year, the University of California at Los Angeles accepted a $100 million gift from businessman Meyer Luskin and his wife, Renee. Half of the donation will be earmarked for a residential conference facility that will include 33,000 square feet of meeting and conference space, at least 282 guest rooms and a new faculty club.

On the other side of the country, Duke University in Durham, N.C., will use an $80 million gift from the Duke Endowment to carry out renovations of three longtime campus buildings:

•West Union, which served as the principal student gathering and eating space until the opening of the Bryan Center in 1982, will receive an extensive interior renovation to create new student social space and dining opportunities.

•Page Auditorium, a 1,200-seat venue that opened in 1930, will undergo updates of its interior, seating, acoustics, backstage and lobby spaces.

•Baldwin Auditorium, the primary rehearsal and performance venue for many student musical ensembles, will receive acoustical improvements, new seats and other patron amenities.

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

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