Exploring What's Ahead-The Top 10 School Issues

As the 21st century approaches, administrators focus on the top 10 issues impacting school facilities and business in the coming years.

As the 21st century approaches, administrators focus on the top 10 issues impacting school facilities and business in the coming years.

The talk around the water cooler has changed over the years, but school administrators keep returning to the same issues-how do we comply with the ADA; how do we address increasing enrollment and decreasing dollars; should we contract services out or keep them in-house; how can we keep our students, faculty and facilities safe and secure; where does technology fit into our educational goals. The questions do not end. This year, American School & University asked four administrators to share their insights and knowledge on 10 issues that are universally affecting school facilities and business across the nation.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act has been in effect for many years, schools still are adapting facilities to meet the guidelines. What changes are schools making and how is the ADA impacting design?

HOORN: More people are becoming aware of the ADA and are beginning to ask more questions. The parents and students are very understanding that our buildings are old and many do not comply. There are almost two different types of ADA-the federal, legal ADA and the practical, which questions how can I get my students into those classrooms and onto that auditorium stage to receive the award.

Parents of physically handicapped students are more outspoken than other parents, but they also are very understanding.

LAYMAN: We formed a committee that included an employee who is in a wheelchair. We used him and our architects, as well as the manager of facilities, myself and several teachers, to do a building-by-building analysis. From this, along with the architects' guidelines, we created a plan of ADA compliance items that had to be done immediately. We devised a five-year plan and determined how we would phase these things in as money became available. Some things were going to have to wait.

It helped to have someone on the committee in a wheelchair; you get a sense of where he could get and where he couldn't get and what obstacles he was facing. The evaluation became more personal; it helped the entire committee.

With energy costs rising and operations' budgets being reduced, energy management is vital to a school district. What changes are you making, and what do you have planned for the future?

HOORN: We have fully integrated our buildings with an electronic energy-management-control system. We have to look at energy every time we do something. It doesn't seem like we can do as much as everyone hopes we could. We look at our costs per square foot and we know we have to do better. But, we have older buildings with single-paned glass and inherent components of energy-management systems that must be changed.

VAN ZANTEN: We have been very fortunate in our district. We have been able to put in for a number of energy grants over the past five or six years, and we have been awarded a number of them. We have changed our boilers, thermostats in older rooms and the way the heat goes through the building. We have changed our windows and some of our roofs; we have changed doors and lights. All of this is not just for energy management. The windows are double-paned and certainly hold out all of the cold and heat; they also have aesthetically changed the whole complexity of the building. I think you may not get all of the money back over the years in energy savings through improvements, but in everything related to it, you more than get your money back.

Enrollment continues to climb, and districts scramble to find room for incoming students. What are some approaches that have worked?

LAYMAN: We have the largest enrollment growth in Johnson County at seven percent. We are dealing with it by building new buildings. We have been very fortunate as far as bond issues. In 1992, we passed a $14.725 million bond issue and built a new high school and middle school, as well as upgraded other buildings. In 1996, we passed another bond issue for $35 million. We have had some crowded classrooms, and we have used some modular units.

Other creative things we have done are put classrooms on stages, create learning spaces out of closets, and redesign a closet to fit a mini computer lab. We have added space for counselors and speech therapists by remodeling closets and reclaimed a multipurpose room and created four classrooms out of it.

ABEL: We are growing; we grew by 900 students last year. We are in the process of completing $100 million worth of construction, including two new 1,100-student elementary schools that will open in September 2000. By the turn of the century, our enrollment will be at the 18,000 mark.

We are having to shift our kindergarten classes into our high school and our sixth grades may move to our middle schools. These are not popular options, but if the enrollment projections come true, and ours have been on the low side, I don't know what else we would do.

VAN ZANTEN: It is just starting to impact us now. We have large groups of students who entered elementary school and are now moving up, so it is starting to impact middle and high schools.

HOORN: We are just the opposite. We are growing maybe one percent a year. We were a much larger district that downsized and have some excess capacity. But, you can't put students into buildings like we used to. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we had schools with 1,200 students in them; now they have 700 and it is busting at the seams. We offer different programs; special education has just exploded and takes up a lot of square feet. You definitely have to plan better.

Programs are changing, which is causing facilities to adapt. What type of facilities improvements are becoming important, and how are you addressing those changes?

LAYMAN: Changes are driven by what we think curriculum needs to meet the educational needs of today's students. We are creating interactive distance-learning labs as a result of student educational needs. Other changes are due to age. Our auditorium is old so we are retrofitting it with new seats and a new sound system. When you have old wooden laminate seats that chip and peal, layers of wood come apart, and they are hurtful and dangerous.

ABEL: What we have is a series of schools that have been expanded or upgraded. Then, we have all of these new schools. You cannot make a 1950s or '60s building into a '90s building. We have parents with children enrolled in the older schools that want to know what we are going to do for those schools. Some of those schools have inadequate parking, inadequate cafeterias, inadequate space for recreation. So, we are doing a survey as to what it would take and adding those costs.

HOORN: We have not had as much as you might think. Ours stem from having to make areas for social workers that move around from building to building and need a place to meet; reading specialists need a space, too. Unlike a teacher where they have a home, specialists only have a general space.

Facility improvements, ADA compliance, technology in the classroom-all of these require money. How are you getting funding?

HOORN: We are spending more than the state average per student, but we are pretty well capped at 1 1/2 percent a year growth for spending and we are facing a long-term budget- reduction method of operating. It has not had a major impact yet, but it is very hard to get the educational community to look at long-term reduction in staff. We offer so many tremendous programs that "take away" is not in the community's vocabulary.

To combat this reduction, we have been using fund equity and we are smarter about our purchases. We have petitioned departments to be more competitive and reduce our costs over the long term.

VAN ZANTEN: State funding has absolutely affected us. Our state and federal aid is minimal; we receive somewhere in the middle to high 90-percent range of our funding from local taxes. Basically, we are a middle-class community, and there are many senior citizens that no longer can afford the taxes charged to them.

During the '90s, indoor air quality has been a common concern. Is it still a problem?

VAN ZANTEN: The state of New Jersey has an air-handling requirement in each classroom based on capacity. I don't think we have a problem with indoor air quality. One of our difficulties has been the cold and warm air, an ongoing battle especially in late May and early June to keep the buildings cool. We don't have air-conditioning, so it is hard to resolve the problem.

ABEL: Our problem is that we have two different types of buildings-older buildings and newer ones. The buildings that were designed in the '70s that are sealed can present problems. All of our new buildings have operable windows in every room. Systems were modified during the energy crisis of the '70s and not documented, such as items disabled and vents blocked, so we have put those systems back to operating how they were designed. There must be a concern to maintain good air quality; it can really create problems for you if you don't address it.

HOORN: For us, actually, it is a bigger issue. More news stories come out about indoor air quality, especially TV stories about different buildings and problems. We are getting more calls every year. While it usually turns up to be nothing, we are doing more checking and responding to complaints of scratchy eyes, upper respiratory problems, sore throats.

My guess is that we are going to have to do a proactive approach to it. We will have to benchmark, meet with the staff before the school year starts and talk about what we have done. We need to educate them on acceptable ranges of carbon-monoxide levels. It is going to be one of our next big issues.

Many districts are struggling to keep costs down and, consequently, are turning to contract services for solutions. How is privatization affecting your districts?

LAYMAN: The only thing we contract out is our bus transportation. It works so well. They take care of training the drivers, doing drug checks and safety checks. I have looked at contracting out food service and custodial service, but we can't get better than what we have right now. Our food service has run in the black for 20 years.

VAN ZANTEN: We currently have a private food-service company. We tried to provide custodial, maintenance and grounds, but that brought an uproar. We used that to our advantage. Rather than pursue the matter, we renegotiated with the union. We were able to do verywell for the people in the community.

Our biggest problem is that we have 35 acres to cover, so for the last six months, we have had a company come in and just cut the grass and trim the bushes. They do the landscaping that would take us an entire week for less cost then it would cost the district for one groundsperson.

HOORN: We have privatized our grass-cutting and snow removal. This year, our people came to us with a competitive price, so we have those items back in-house. Privatization has given management a real tool to talk with employees. The unions, instead of being part of the problem, are more interested in talking about how we can get better. They want to be the best they can be. Without some sort of motivation, it becomes only words. They realize after we start contracting out all of the cleaning, that maybe there is something that can be done, and maybe they can work together to save money.

We hear stories every day about security problems at schools. What are your districts doing to be proactive in the area of keeping students, staff and facilities safe?

HOORN: Security is not a major problem for us right now, but it is increasing in importance. Both of our high-school principals have asked to install cameras. I have found that the principals know what is going on and are better judges of what needs to be done.

LAYMAN: We are managing right now with alarm systems and after-hours access control that includes digital panels with keypads. In my 11 years, we have had one incident of vandalism at a new middle school. I think a lot of our success has been because of the area. We are very well patrolled by the police department and sheriff's department. They are constantly in our parking lots. Plus, we have uniformed SROs (school resource officers), so everybody knows that we are always close in touch with law enforcement.

VAN ZANTEN: We have had some security problems with outside people coming onto our campus. Now that we have campus monitors, we are not having problems. There are alarm systems for use at night.

I think what has happened is that a lot of school districts are finding that students are not finding school buildings as sacred as they used to. Students get into fights more than they used to; they act more recklessly. Little fights have become big fights; it is a concern.

But, our district does not have that type of disregard for safety. If I have one fight every four days, that is a lot. We are holding students more accountable and following through with parents, which is helping. We have a new administrative system that makes sure students are in class and that has helped a lot. We declared this a smoke-free campus, which has helped.

Schools are being renovated and built with technology in mind. What are your districts doing to bring technology to students?

HOORN: We have purchased about $12 million worth of technology infrastructure and equipment, and we are in the beginning stages of spending about $25 million in three years. It [technology] is big. It especially is big here because so many of our students have computers at home and we have one of the leading industrial technology high schools-it has videoconferencing to Germany.

To totally integrate technology is where we are headed. There is no choice. We have some teachers that don't use it and don't intend on using it. But, it is not going to be a choice in the future; that is how they are going to get a lot of their materials.

LAYMAN: It [technology] is creating instantaneous worldwide communications and we need to take it seriously. Our teachers are getting frustrated with the amount of e-mail they have to respond to. There is no wait time for mail to get there, for you to process information and have time to reflect; people expect an immediate response.

Technology is changing everything. It is changing how we teach, what we teach. The changing curriculum is forcing us to redesign buildings; we have to install cabling and infrastructure. We have hired a consultant to help with the design issues and determine where we want the monitors and how much wiring we need. Then, you have to deal with temperature issues and climate issues. Then, once the system is in place, you have the cost of maintaining the system, as well as hardware and software.

The other absolute critical aspect is the certified network administrators and engineers, who are pretty high-dollar. We have just hired five to take care of the system in our district, and we are not that big of a district.

VAN ZANTEN: We have a fiber-optic backbone in both buildings that are two blocks away from each other, and all of our classes are networked. We have a number of computer labs and we have T1 access for the Internet for every computer in the building.

We feel that the research skills students get and the potential for teacher improvement is important. The biggest challenge before all educators it to help teachers become more aware of how they can use technology and use it properly.

Most of the cost is in hardware, but teacher inservice is going to far outweigh that. I think that everyone is really facing the problem of how to deal with that. We have purchased a lot of computers over the last three years, and the problem is that the computers we bought three years ago don't have enough memory. We are considering putting in servers in different areas to help with the load.

ABEL: How it is all going to be paid for is a real concern. I am talking about training, keeping everything upgraded, new software. There have to be enough people to answer questions about the systems and how they are supposed to be working. Many educators are looking at technology as an initial investment and have not looked at long-term life-cycle costs to keep these systems viable.

There are many components to transporting students-selecting routes, keeping drivers trained, special-education requirements and more. What are some transportation tips that work for your district?

HOORN: Our transportation operation is greatly affected by special education. Twenty percent of our fleet is dedicated to special education. Those budgets have always been underfunded by the state and it is not getting better. There is a constant source of problems between pickup and dropoff locations and the time students spend on a bus. Three years ago, we made substantial cuts, and we have probably put back three-fourths of those because of parent demands. It is real tough to make significant moves in transportation until it becomes a problem where we have to cut gym or art class, then they start taking a look at transportation.

ABEL: The biggest thing we are doing is to move to the next level of automation. With our database, teachers can see which bus a student is on. We will have digitized maps and printed routes for drivers. I hope that this is going to be complete by the beginning of the next school year.

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