School Maintenance Needs

School Maintenance Needs

Budget cuts and restricted funding are making renovations more challenging.

The United States is full of schools built in the 1950s and 60s that supported the boomer school-age enrollment increase. These schools, once beacons of the neighborhood, are 50 to 60 years old and susceptible to becoming the community "eyesore." Budgeting for maintenance was fairly systematic for school districts for the first 10 to 20 years after opening those buildings. The schools were relatively low-maintenance, and the annual operations and repair budgets kept ahead of maintenance requirements.

The first round of systems and products replacement for those schools was in the mid-80s, and it now is time for a second or third round of upgrades for those buildings. Many districts added new schools in the late 80s and early 90s because of another round of enrollment growth; these schools are due for major upgrades.

Today, with budget cuts and funding restrictions, school district budgets cannot cover compounded major maintenance work required to extend the useful life of the 1950s/60s schools, let alone the schools built in the 1980s and 90s.

National Problem

It’s a national problem; cost estimates for repairing and modernizing schools nationwide continue to grow. The General Accounting Office estimated a $112 billion backlog in 1995; in 1999 the National Center for Education Statistics put the figure at $127 billion; in 2000, the National Education Association estimated it would take $268 billion to carry out all the needed school repairs.

Schools and universities made some inroads in addressing the problem during the last decade, but the economic setbacks in recent years have caused many education institutions to defer projects.

The costs for operations and maintenance of a building involve a substantial expenditure of public funds. The investment for original construction represents only about one-eighth of the cost of operating a school (including overhead costs and facility maintenance and operation costs) over a 30-year life of the building. Operating costs for utilities, energy usage and services are essential and must compete with educatonal programs for funds.

Properly designed and constructed school buildings provide substantial savings in operations, maintenance, and long-term repair and retrofit costs over time.

Cost value practices

Using life-cycle cost value practices when the school is built may be difficult for taxpayers and school boards to comprehend when available building funds are tight, but the rewards in lower energy costs, reduced maintenance costs and longer life span saves millions of dollars over time. The higher the quality of the product, system and installation, the longer the building’s life span is before major retrofit and replacement investment is required.

Some states are organized so that school districts operate with facilities and curriculum out of the same budget. That makes it a struggle to decide whether to buy computers or replace a school roof. The result is an under-funded, less-than-satisfactory compromise: Patch the roof, and update a few computers. Some states have attempted to resolve this dilemma by separating facilities funding from curriculum funding, but the result still is under-funding.

In our own homes, we must adequately budget for major maintenance and upgrades to hold the value of our investment. Education institutions normally take good care of annually maintaining their facilities, but eventually major repairs exceed annual budget allotments.

Consequently, schools and universities must evaluate the process and try to extend the useful life of their buildings. Is it time to ask the community for money to re-invest in schools, or to replace the existing school? Many times, reinvestment goes toward upgrades behind walls, above ceilings, and under floors—for improvements the community won’t see after the work is completed.

Public communications

How do institutions alert the public that, even though they have adequately maintained their buildings, there comes a time when major upgrades are necessary? It is essential to utilize the expertise of a facilities specialist to quantify the needs, construction costs and sequencing.

School systems must communicate to the public that annual budgets handle yearly maintenance issues, but when major systems replacements and retrofits are required, the annual budget must be supplemented.

A "drive-by" frequently is misleading to the public; the building exterior "looks great" from the street. From a distance, it appears the building and grounds are in good shape. Once inside, though, there can be an extreme difference. Interiors of older buildings may have deteriorated finishes, wornout underground plumbing infrastructure, inadequate ventilation systems, drafty windows, leaking roofs and outdated technology infrastructure.

The challenge is getting the public inside the school to see the "real truth." Have you ever attended a public meeting and heard, "… that building was fine when I went to school, how come you’ve let the building deteriorate?" This is disheartening to hear, especially because the majority of school facility managers are effective at using their maintenance dollars wisely and seek creative opportunities to reduce energy costs.

What’s more economical?

When it comes to replacing outdated and deteriorated plumbing systems, ventilation systems, boilers, temperature controls, lighting, pavement, windows, roofs, doors, casework, hardware, seating, lockers, etc., it is essential to investigate short-term vs. long-term investment (10 to 20 years out); depending on the building age and the extent of work needed, it may be more economical to replace the building or a section.

If selling the public on major maintenance items is a challenge, try persuading them to replace or abandon a building because long-term repair costs would approach, meet or exceed the replacement cost.

If objective analysis and investigation has occurred, administrators may find it more palatable to persuade the public to reinvest and extend the useful life of a building, especially if it’s less than 50 years old. Once the work is complete, however, it may be a challenge to show what was done, because much of the work is hidden above ceilings, behind walls, and under floors. Will the public recognize the results?

The most costly retrofits, in most cases, are heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems replacements. Those upgrades frequently exceed $50 per square foot and may involve removing existing systems and installing ductwork, chillers, air handling units and hot-water conversions. Energy-management digital temperature controls can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. This investment dramatically improves indoor air quality and reduces annual operating costs, but the improvements may not be evident to a casual observer.

Another costly retrofit is plumbing infrastructure, which includes replacement of underground waste piping, above-ground lines, plumbing and fixtures. With costs that exceed annual funding mechanisms, this work is necessary after 50 years in order to prevent emergency systems failures that potentially result in school building shutdown.

Roof replacements take a large amount of the annual facilities budgets. For example, replacement of 300,000 square feet of roof surface for a high school can cost millions depending on the extent of roof demolition and type of replacement system. Replacement can be managed by addressing the oldest building portions first, unless the entire roof is original and in need of replacement.

In the long run, higher initial quality, energy-efficiency and sustainability of products, systems and installations in buildings result in increased effectiveness in managing operations and maintenance costs, and postponed major costs of reinvestment retrofit projects.

These elements of facilities design and management provide school districts with the tools to effectively manage annual budgets and to communicate the message of fiscal responsibility to the public. If needs are communicated effectively, the public will value the district’s facilities reinvestment program.

Addressing the needs

A few years ago, St. Charles (Ill.) Community School District embarked on a long-range facilities plan to address facilities needs. The district held numerous meetings with more than 300 community participants. The resulting solution was to replace selected schools and make major investments in other schools to extend their useful life. Community participation was intense and, because of the size of the project, it was brought to the community for a referendum. Although the referendum failed, the needs still exist today. The district used the original long-range plan to carry out necessary repair projects through its annual facilities budget.

With this approach, the district stays on course with the long-term plan, managing priorities and revaluating replacement/repair schedules. At the end of each fiscal year, projects for the next year are selected up to the budget amount. The long-term facilities plan is updated yearly as projects are completed, and new repair projects are added to the plan. Although the budget is fixed, the district follows the plan, keeping it up-to-date so the community sees progress and the district stays consistent with the master plan. When the time comes to pursue another bond referendum, the district’s positive history of prudent maintenance and facilities management will be recognized positively by the community.

Anoka-Hennepin Public School District, along with numerous other Minnesota districts, uses the "Alternative Facilities 10-Year Plan" funding mechanism to address large retrofit projects. The Minnesota State Legislature permits school districts with a certain amount of square footage of space and an average building age limit to levy additional local funds for maintaining buildings to address higher cost upgrades without going for a referendum. Regulated by the Department of Education, complying projects consist of replacement and retrofit of deteriorating systems and finishes, deferred maintenance and accessibility improvement projects. Building additions, wall relocations, energy-efficiency upgrades, etc., typically are not permitted through this funding mechanism.

With this approach, districts levy without a referendum to adequately reinvest in their schools. Some districts, until recently, elected not to use the additional funding for concern of community reaction. However, with budget cutbacks and reductions, most eligible districts take advantage of this program to stay on pace with their life-cycle replacement program. Transparency in communications with community stakeholders is important, especially because a referendum is not required.

Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, is president of ATS&R Planners/Architects/Engineers, Minneapolis, a multi-disciplined firm specializing in pre-K to 12 and post-secondary school planning and design. He can be reached at [email protected].

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