Planning for the Long Haul

All school districts eventually are confronted with deteriorating or functionally obsolete facilities. Many also encounter demographic changes that require them to re-examine existing facility usage or build new educational and support facilities. These are just some of the reasons why the facilities needs assessment and master plan are invaluable tools for districts facing future construction.

A thorough and comprehensive assessment and planning process will provide a district with a road map for facility-improvement decision-making. This process also is an excellent method of including district staff and community members in what often becomes a pre-bond analysis and needs-identification process.

Two keys to a successful needs assessment and master plan are the formation of a planning team and the development of a comprehensive process outline.

Making plans The planning team should be a diverse group of individuals that works well in a collaborative atmosphere. The combination of professional consultants and representatives of the district's administrative staff, educators, governing board and patrons has proven effective. Representatives from existing school and community organizations also have been valuable members or resources to the team. Architects, engineers, planners, bond consultants and demographers are typical resources that are utilized during the planning process.

Goals and objectives should be established for the planning team. Goals tend to be general and broad in interpretation. An example of a planning-team goal would be to determine a solution to the school district's overcrowding and facility-deterioration problems.

Team objectives become more measurable and quantifiable. A planning-team objective might be to analyze the 5- and 10-year projected enrollment growth for the district's current attendance boundaries and determine if existing school facilities can accommodate this growth.

After defining goals and objectives, the team should outline the planning process and establish timelines.

Conducting a needs assessment The initial phase of the process should be devoted to researching existing conditions and identifying facility deficiencies. The planning team starts by assembling existing information relative to the district's sites and buildings. Fire marshal reports, asbestos studies, enrollment statistics, as-built plans and aerial photographs are valuable resources.

An existing facilities inventory and analysis should be conducted to identify issues relative to the physical condition and utilization of the district's facilities. Architect/engineer surveys of existing site and building conditions will identify facility deficiencies and needed improvements. User-group and maintenance-staff interviews at each site will give further insight into facility usage and hidden conditions. Checklists typically are utilized by each survey discipline--architectural, mechanical, electrical and site--to record field observations and note deficiencies. A space utilization study should be conducted to identify existing space usage and area allocations.

Demographic studies and enrollment projections are critical when analyzing the needs of districts with changing enrollment patterns. Enrollment-projection data should be developed by school, grade level and year for the planning periods established by the team. If attendance boundary changes are anticipated, it is important to have all enrollment data at a detail level that will allow accurate determination of boundary changes.

A site-evaluation or real-estate study can assist in determining district-wide expansion and development capability. Construction drawings, site surveys, geotechnical studies and aerial photographs can be used to evaluate existing school sites. Potential new construction sites can be identified through a planning-team site search or by utilizing a real-estate consultant.

A thorough understanding of the district's financial status is essential. The existing bond debt, current and future bonding capacity, and any other construction funding considerations must be thoroughly researched. District business managers, fiscal agents and bond consultants are good resources to the planning team. Long- and short-term construction budget limitations should be identified prior to establishing planning solutions and priorities.

Analysis and planning The analysis and master planning phase of the process is started once the existing conditions have been thoroughly inventoried. This phase of the planning process is typically divided into four sequential steps:

*Vision of the learning environment. The first step is to develop a vision of the learning environment. The vision defines the facility goals and standards that will be used in evaluating building deficiencies and establishing solutions. Existing district mission and belief statements are a good starting point for the vision. The educational direction established in these documents serves as a foundation for more detailed facility decisionmaking.

Districts often define expected learning outcomes and educational goals that summarize the competencies, applications and qualities that are unique to their educational process. These are helpful in understanding educational expectations that may influence facility requirements. The identification of key learning activities and events will further help the planning team describe an environment that responds to the district's educational goals. Facility design objectives also should be outlined to define key design issues, such as community usage, interdisciplinary team-teaching, student safety, security, environmental sensitivity, flexibility and educational technology.

Facility standards, educational specifications and space programs describe in detail the specific building functions, spaces and organizational concepts that are desired in the optimal learning environment. It is the systematic progression from a district's mission and beliefs through facility goals and objectives that allows the planning team to understand and accurately define facility standards and space needs. The complete vision of the learning environment is a document that is used to evaluate existing facilities and define new facility requirements in the next planning step.

*Data analysis and needs identification. Utilizing the data collected in the needs assessment and research phase, data analysis and needs identification defines and categorizes the district's facility needs. Each existing facility should be analyzed to determine functional suitability, renovation requirements and expansion potential. The building deficiencies identified in the facilities inventory are analyzed, and corresponding improvements are determined. Examine enrollment projections to determine growth areas within the district. Existing facility expansion and new facility needs are identified in response to the projections. The space programs and educational specifications developed in the vision are utilized to determine new construction requirements.

Develop construction cost estimates for all renovation and new construction solutions and options. In some cases, the planning team may determine that the costs of existing facility improvements warrants consideration of building demolition and replacement.

*Planning principles. These should be developed to define positions on fundamental planning issues and to guide the team in the development and evaluation of master-plan concepts. Planning principles typically address issues such as school enrollment capacities, attendance boundary considerations, community use and partnering, grade configuration or teacher-student ratios.

*Master-plan concept development. This is the fourth and final step. Having identified, categorized and prioritized district facility needs, the team is ready to explore master-plan solutions. The team should initially outline solutions that respond to the district's long-range needs. They should identify immediate and short-term needs and prioritize them in accordance with the long-range goals.

At this point in the process, the team needs to examine all viable master-plan solutions. A comprehensive examination of potential solutions will substantiate the final master-plan direction. Existing facility expansion, renovation and demolition requirements typically are identified first. Then, determine new school construction requirements. Enrollment projections and space deficiencies are used to calculate the area requirements for existing and new construction in each master-plan concept. Phased grade configuration and attendance boundary changes may be necessary to address planning goals and ensure optimal utilization of facilities. Develop budget cost estimates for each concept solution.

Once the initial master-plan solutions are identified, the team should evaluate each solution with regard to the criteria established earlier in the process. The master-plan concepts should be assessed in relation to the needs identification, learning environment vision, planning principles and budget. Color-keyed graphic plans and aerial photographs are useful in illustrating the district-wide and site-specific differences between concepts. A matrix that establishes weighted numerical values for specific evaluation criteria may be useful in establishing the final master-plan direction.

As the planning team analyzes each solution, alternatives and options that address key issues may be revealed. Refinements and improvements are the natural result of this process. The goal of the planning team is to establish a single direction that best responds to the short- and long-term needs of the district.

Once complete, the district will have a facility assessment and master plan that will guide it through years of pre-established, systematic facility improvement.

A comprehensive, participatory planning process established the facility needs for Washington Elementary School District (WESD), Phoenix--and assisted in the passage of a $114 million bond issue to help realize those needs.

WESD is a landlocked, urban district that accommodates more than 24,000 K-8 students at 32 existing elementary- and middle-school campuses. The district utilizes approximately 2 million square feet of permanent school buildings and more than 200 portable classrooms. The majority of the district's permanent structures were built between 1949 and 1977. With the exception of a $39 million renovation bond passed in 1992, the district's school buildings remain in their original condition and configuration.

In October 1995, WESD began a comprehensive needs assessment and master-planning process. The planning team analyzed each of the district's 32 campuses. Building deficiencies and recommended improvements were identified and categorized. A space utilization study defined facility capacities and space requirements using different student/teaching-station ratios.

A 2-year-old district-wide demographic study had projected an enrollment of more than 28,000 students by the year 2003. The original study was updated to reflect current enrollment statistics and supplemented with detailed quarter-section data that enabled the planning team to more accurately determine attendance-boundary modifications. A formal site search was conducted to identify potential new school sites in the high growth areas of the district.

A vision of the learning environment was developed to guide the master-planning effort and define specific facility goals, beginning with the mission and belief statements of the district. The educational foundation established in these documents served as a basis for the succeeding facility goals.

A technology plan was developed in response to the district's voice, video and data goals. It identified specific technology improvements related to the district's technology curriculum, support for the learning process, and local- and wide-area networks. Technology improvements, infrastructure, and related mechanical and electrical improvements for existing and new school facilities were integrated into the overall facilities master plan.

Planning principles were defined to guide the development of master-plan solutions. The principles addressed a variety of key issues such as master-plan flexibility, facility standards, portable classroom use, attendance boundaries and the neighborhood-school concept.

Twelve initial master-plan directions were outlined in response to different grade-level configurations and enrollment-projection requirements. Four preliminary master-plan concepts evolved from these initial directions. The preliminary concept plans represented four different grade configurations; K-6/7-8, K-5/6-8, K-8, and a hybrid configuration that utilized K-5/6-8 and K-8 schools. The construction priorities and budget projections for each concept were developed for 5- and 10-year planning periods.

All four of the preliminary concepts were presented to the voters prior to the bond election. Teams of district administrators, architects and community representatives made presentations at each of the existing campuses. A total of 68 presentations were made to school staff and community members in the five weeks prior to the May 1996 bond election. It was explained that the final master-plan direction would be established after receiving input via the pre-bond public presentations.

On May 21, 1996, the voters of the Washington Elementary School District approved a $114.78 million bond proposal that addressed the 5-year master-plan needs of the district. A final master-plan direction was established and shared with the community through a second series of post-bond presentations at each of the existing school sites. The master plan was approved by the governing board on November 22, 1996. New construction, renovation and technology improvements are proceeding in accordance with the master plan.

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