Critical Issues in Education Facilities and Business

Jan. 1, 2006
A panel of professionals shares creative solutions to many of the facilities and business operations challenges faced by education institutions nationwide.

A roundtable panel of education professionals shares creative solutions to many of the facilities and business operations challenges faced by education institutions nationwide. The participants:

Carl Larson, plant operations supervisor, Snoqualmie Valley School District, Wash. In addition to being responsible for the district's plant operations, Carl is president of the state's Association of Maintenance and Operations Administrators and vice president of the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Sports Turf Managers Association.

Scott E. Little, associate executive director, Michigan School Business Officials. Scott's main area of responsibility encompasses working with members in the facilities, transportation and food-service operations. He is scheduled to complete his master's degree in facility management this spring.

James Reny, business manager and facilities director, Waterville Public Schools, Maine. Jim oversees the day-to-day operations of district facilities, as well as short-term planning and long-term capital-asset management. He is past president of the Maine Association of School Business Officials and serves as vice chairman of the School Facilities Committee of the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) International.

Roger Young, assistant superintendent for finance and facilities, Manchester Essex Regional School District, Mass. Roger is chairman of the ASBO Facilities Committee, a past president of the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials, and currently serves the Massachusetts Department of Education as the state's LEA representative to the National Forum on Education Statistics. He chaired the national school facilities maintenance task force that created the Planning Guide for Maintaining School Facilities, which has been distributed to more than 16,000 school leaders throughout the United States and Canada.

AS&U: While No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has had a significant impact on the academic front, how is it affecting facilities, information technology and other operations in an educational organization — and how can administrators better meet these challenges?

LITTLE: Frankly, I don't know that we are seeing that [NCLB's effect on facilities] a lot yet, but there is an inherent sense that we are going to. Because as you look at more studies out there addressing the school facility's effect on student outcomes, such as whether or not a student is in a comfortable, healthy environment and a teacher is in a comfortable, healthy environment, for example, as well as other factors related to the facility that can affect test scores — and NCLB is certainly about test scores — then we can make the connection that NCLB will have an impact on the management of our facilities.

LARSON: When I was first looking at NCLB, I was trying to determine how it affects facilities. The assumption is that it is all on the curriculum side. Then I started to think about it. I've had to upgrade playgrounds to ADA requirements because of one special child that we had to bring into the district from two or three districts away. We started modifying some of our classrooms for special ed — putting in special sinks and faucets. It started adding up, and I began to realize how much NCLB is really affecting the facilities.

It's a gradual increase; you see it through work orders or however you see it come through your office or across your desk, but it affects facilities a great deal. And it is going to affect facilities a great deal in the future as NCLB gets going.

YOUNG: I think that NCLB is really reflecting the atmosphere of more accountability. And in the schools, when you have more accountability for student performance and are nurturing that on a regular basis, then you're creating an atmosphere in that school district of continuous improvement. And I think that's really what is going on.

I agree with everything that was said in terms of having to modify facilities to make sure that they are well-maintained, safe and that they provide a healthy atmosphere. But we are in an atmosphere of accountability, where everyone is expecting more to be done in the classroom. And the new breed of this accountability is strategic thinking. So, as the curriculum side and the board side start focusing on a strategic plan for improving math and science scores, the natural tendency is to say ‘what is your strategic plan for improving the school facility, not only for the students that are here, but also for protecting the capital investment of the community?’

RENY: One of the impacts we saw in our district was the diversion of funds to meet some of the requirements being put on us by NCLB through new assessment policies that are taking place, such as highly qualified teachers or more professional development. We're also seeing the impact of the schools that are failing the annual yearly progress. So, we're seeing some negative impacts right now on our cost centers because of the impact of NCLB.

AS&U: When you look at NCLB, very rarely does it address facilities. Are there any funding opportunities available under NCLB legislation, or any strategies you've been able to implement when addressing some of the facilities issues that have surfaced as a result of NCLB?

LARSON: We had some help from the structural services side for special education, but most costs we have had to absorb.

YOUNG: In our school district, we haven't received any additional funding for NCLB in the facilities or maintenance area. But what I maintain is that in the facilities/maintenance area, you must have a strategic plan. You've got the data to be able to describe all of the activities that you've been doing; you talk about all the things that you've done and your current need. It is my observation that by doing that, you pretty much get what you need in order to improve the facilities.

And so I look at it [NCLB] not just as a moment in time, but rather a tipping point. But if we can still focus our attention on doing a better job and communicating it, then the members of the community are going to be supporting us.

RENY: One of the things we see in Maine that is going to help us through this time period is the revolving renovation fund that was established in the state in 1998, which allows us to get some facilities monies and, through the program, a part of the bond is forgiven depending on the district's level of funding participation. There also is no interest.

This has allowed us to bring some money into our district to do some major renovation projects on our schools and also has been an impetus with our local city council to get some bonding money at the local level. This is going to put us in a better position, I think, as NCLB grows in our district to meet some of those challenges.

AS&U: Education institutions are facing increasingly tight budgets, and facilities professionals continually are having to ‘do more with less.’ As deferred maintenance continues to grow, as staffs continue to be stretched further, and as budgets become increasingly inadequate, how can administrators meet these challenges, and what strategies have you used to address your facilities needs?

LITTLE: While I don't work directly at a district, I am involved with districts throughout Michigan, and we promote the use of a maintenance-management system that can allow you to capture some of that information and then present it to the appropriate people. Whether or not it always makes a difference, at least you present it, and that's beneficial.

We've also seen where districts don't have those systems in place. I think it's easier to ignore certain needs, and deferred maintenance, frankly, is often ignored maintenance, and we don't capture how much is deferred until the buildings have deteriorated to the point where we need to go out for a bond. And I think that can be very frustrating to the community that says, ‘well, you haven't maintained your buildings to begin with so why would we empower you with new facilities?’ So, I think it is essential that we capture that data.

From a perspective of funding and reduction in staff and so forth, one of the things we are seeing in Michigan, and I'm not sure how prevalent it is around the nation, is the outsourcing of custodial staffs. Initially, we'd get calls just asking for some information. Now we're getting calls saying, ‘I just want an RFP because we're doing it. We have no choice here. We are totally crippled by the exploding healthcare and retirement benefits; we can't continue to do these things in-house.’

And often it's not even a quality issue. So, I don't know where that's going to lead, and certainly it's a huge political issue in communities where the majority of your support staff lives in the community. Privatization of certain support services is certainly something people are looking at in this financial time.

LARSON: Scott has touched on a real sensitive issue about outsourcing, whether it's maintenance, custodial or transportation. I'm not sure which is saving money and which is not saving money, but the one thing that we can do as facility directors is make sure that products put into our facilities have the most effective life-cycle cost. You're going to pay more upfront, but in the long run you are going to save money.

We're beginning to get into long-range planning — so we know when we are going to have to replace a roof, when we are going to have to replace carpet, when we are going to have to replace an HVAC unit. We know what the life cycle on those are and what the estimated cost will be so we can plan for it in the future.

YOUNG: One way I think we always need to continually think is strategically. If you recognize and accept the fact that decisions are based on data, what you need to do is say in your thinking and in the way you go about your business is that you find ways of collecting data. And one of the best ways to do that from a strategic perspective is to get a system where you're keeping track of such things as your work orders, what's going on, the money you're spending, how energy relates to the degree days, how you compare with other school districts. With data, you can make your case.

And the reality in most people's minds is if the roof is leaking now, how much more is it going to leak in a year? And if you don't have a good answer to that, chances are repairs will be deferred. But if you're in there being able to say, ‘You know what, we have five roofs, here are the ages, here are the conditions, here are all the things we've done to maintain them, this is when all of these roofs are going to be done, this is how much it's increasing every year,’ you're going to have a better chance of having a roof replacement because you have the answers. And the reason you have the answers is because in the beginning you started thinking strategically.

One thing I have found that I believe is true is that in each of your communities there are a ton of resources, and there are a lot of people out there that are willing to be involved and contribute in a way that will help the school department.

RENY: One of the things that we've been doing for several years in Maine is forming geographical co-ops throughout the state to assist in purchasing service contracts and energy. Also, what's really come down the road now and is being driven by the department as well as by the governor's office is regionalization within the state. Right now, we are looking at possibly building a common high school with a neighboring district.

Those are the types of things we are looking at to try to offset some of the costs, some of the increases, and some of the lack of local funding to better our educational systems to be able to provide the level of education that we want for our students.

LITTLE: In Michigan, an example of trying to save districts money includes a school energy cooperative that was formed to purchase cheaper energy for schools. We also do an aggregated bus purchase program.

Going back to what was mentioned before, I agree that as facility managers it's important we collect data and understand what it means to market our department and tell folks what we do, because a lot of what we do in facilities is invisible to most people. We do it in fan rooms, and we do it on rooftops. When we don't demonstrate to our school board and to our higher administration all the things we accomplish, it becomes an easier decision to reduce our budgets.

So, if we can at least make those cases; if we can say to folks ‘I've done an analysis here, and the reason I'm buying this more expensive carpet is because it will last us longer, and over the life of that carpet it will cost us less to maintain it.’ When we can make those arguments, it is very powerful. It doesn't always win the argument, but at least we presented the case.

AS&U: School district and college physical plants face many of the same issues, such as budget inadequacies, deferred maintenance and staff shortages. However, colleges often are able to funnel additional resources into physical plants and maintenance because of the importance of campus perception in recruiting and keeping students. With charter schools, with NCLB and the fact that if you have an unsafe school or failing school you have to allow those children to go somewhere else, is this ‘competition’ aspect helping you in justifying your case on the maintenance end to look at such things as life-cycle costing more? Is that impacting your institutions at all?

LARSON: Three years ago we passed a $53 million bond issue and are using the money to build a new elementary school, a new middle school and a new athletic complex. Prior to that bond, we passed one to renovate four schools. I wasn't involved in the planning of the four renovations. I don't know if this has anything to do with competition, but what happened was the construction manager ensured all the projects came in under budget and on time. It's only been four years, and I'm already replacing flooring, fixtures, redoing bathroom partitions — just because of the lack of quality of the materials that were put in. Because of that, with the most recent bond issue, product quality and life-cycle performance are key.

YOUNG: In Massachusetts, [the state] has school choice. And for every student that decides to come to your school rather than their home community, you get approximately $5,000. So we have 150 students that come into our school district every year, which equates to some $750,000 worth of money that we wouldn't have otherwise had.

On one hand, however, that money is used to offset the assessment for the two communities. We count that as part of our revenue, so we are not able to really ‘bank it’ as much as we would like. But what we have found is that because we have that three-quarters of a million dollars coming in, that we were able to spend $250,000 extra for capital improvements for the three schools and that we also started a stabilization fund of $130,000 a year for the next seven years to build up that pot of money. So what we've done is drawn a correlation between the money coming in under school choice and the quality of facilities.

RENY: We've been involved in choice for a long time. There are several surrounding communities that do not have their own high schools, so we compete with three other local school districts for those tuition students. One of the areas that we've been able to stand out in is in the ability to offer AP courses and fine-arts courses that some of the surrounding schools are not in a position to offer. So we've been at that competitive level for several years, and we're looking to maintain that as the funding becomes really tight.

LITTLE: There's no question that competition is involved. Curb appeal is huge. When parents see dilapidated buildings [when looking at schools], I think they will tend to look elsewhere. So, I think it is a huge piece of what we need to do to market our schools and school districts.

YOUNG: A bit of the downside to this though is, as I'm sitting here feeling good about $750,000 coming into the school district, that's $750,000 going out of another school district or school districts. From the bigger perspective of our society, it's making a poorer school district poorer. But as I step back and look at it from the bigger picture, even though you know that it's hurting some of the other schools, it's making it so much better for those people that are in the districts receiving the additional money. It's just part of that environment that we're in.

AS&U: A major facilities challenge is adequate staffing. How have you addressed some of your staffing challenges?

LARSON: Our facilities have increased 100,000 square feet in nine years and will be increasing another 100,000 square feet in the next couple of years. My staffing has increased — when I say double, that doesn't mean that's a whole lot of people. I started out with two maintenance people; I have three now as well as an HVAC technician, which I didn't have before. That's four on the maintenance side. I had two grounds personnel when I started, now I have three — about one grounds person for every 60 acres.

But we didn't have any technology in our workplace nine years ago. Today, our whole department runs on technology. So, I guess the old saying is if you have the right tool for the job you'll be more efficient and you'll save a lot of labor hours, and that's basically what we have done. We've modernized our maintenance-management system along with our energy-management system. Technology actually runs our maintenance department at this time.

AS&U: Speaking of technology, there's no question it significantly has changed the way teachers teach and students learn. It also has impacted operations at education institutions. What technology trends are emerging in your operation, and how is technology helping — or hindering — your operation?

RENY: As building operations systems are concerned, I think [technology] has had a huge impact on our district, enabling us to reduce our cost per square foot as far as heating and electricity is concerned. We've been able to reduce our budgets in those areas over the last several years by shutting down our buildings when not in use, by monitoring more closely the use of our buildings, by taking all those pieces of technology and taking all the benefits from them in trying to lower our operating costs.

YOUNG: I know that in our district, whenever we are hiring somebody, whether it be a new custodian or someone in the maintenance area, they have to have a background in technology. At the very least, they need to be familiar with spreadsheets, e-mail and communicating. We figure we can train after that.

We don't expect someone coming in to know how to handle our advanced systems, but rather they come in with a familiarity of certain things. Because of our dependence on technology, if somebody isn't doing their job or paying attention and don't see that things are going out of balance, things can go south real quick with all of the energy savings that you thought you were getting. You can easily end up having a building that is costing you a lot more because it's out of balance.

LARSON: Technology has come a long way, but it still creates different kinds of maintenance problems that we didn't have before. We still have to maintain those energy-management systems. The equipment that you're putting in costs more, and it costs more to maintain. But on the other hand, it also operates more efficiently. You have to maintain those balances to get optimum savings.

Chances are you are not going to be able to increase your staff, so you're going to have to find ways to make your staff more efficient. And usually that means getting the right tool for the right job.

AS&U: How do you get staff on board with new technology?

LARSON: The idea of change is sometimes a tough concept for some. You need to find a balance between letting staff know that change is always on the horizon, but that you don't surprise them. It takes time.

LITTLE: As we start to put accountability systems in place, there is some resistance because it's a sense of a ‘big-brother’ kind of thing. But we have to make the argument now, that in this environment, we have to demonstrate our value as a department and we have to market what we do. So as the manager, we have to be upfront with folks and be able to show some data and statistics on how much we accomplish.

YOUNG: When it comes to change in my district, I use a concept of managing by mapping. You take one big piece of paper and in the middle is your focus. And on this one piece of paper, you are identifying the major elements and doing it in a way that [staff] can have some participation in it. This helps everybody to have a better understanding of where you want to go. It's my belief that people don't mind doing things differently if they have a clear idea of where you're going, why you're doing it, how they fit in, and do they have an opportunity to contribute to your thinking.

RENY: It's important to involve them in that process, get buy-in from the staff. They should be involved at the ground level and able to make some of the decisions as you go through the process. It's vital.

AS&U: How are you able to keep your staff up to speed with technology as often and as quickly as technology changes?

RENY: We try to use a lot of the in-service days we have to conduct training in-house. We also try to take advantage of the resources we have in our district, that we have at the state level or that a neighboring district may have. We utilize the universities within the state to send staff for training at a very minimal cost.

LARSON: We depend on our vendors a lot to do training for us, especially on the custodial side. When you don't have a budget for training, you have to use every resource you have out there to make it work.

YOUNG: In the area of training, we've been able to rely quite a bit on the head nurse of the school to help us with training to avoid back injury and bloodborne pathogens, as well as a number of other items. Our IT department has been good with helping our people with e-mail and solving problems with their computers. We have a number of talented people on the staff that can serve as trainers as well.

LITTLE: Training requires commitment from higher administration, also, that says it is important.

AS&U: Is the incorporation of technology into your operation viewed as an added expense or a long-term investment?

YOUNG: In our school district, it's a long-term investment. People recognize it takes money to support the servers and the routers and the training that goes with it, as well as the upgrades. But so much of that hinges on the business official. If the business manager in your school district views the importance of technology when it comes to instruction and the infrastructure, including food service and maintenance and operations, if that position is on board that's three-quarters of the battle because they are not going to be arguing what the cost is, they're going to be arguing what the benefits are.

LARSON: It's not so important as to what [technology] is costing us; it's looking at where the benefits are coming from and the progress the district is going to make. I think that's what they are looking at, not so much the cost.

AS&U: The very nature of maintenance, repair and operations is that it is more efficient to operate in a preventive or proactive mode, addressing repairs early rather than deferring them. However, reality is that education administrators often find it more politically expedient to ‘run to fail’ and later replace failed systems with new systems. How are you dealing with this issue, and what are the implications to your operation?

LITTLE: Something that has been getting more attention lately that would help is third-party commissioning when doing construction. Yet, it is an argument that is so difficult to make to school boards when they say, ‘well, we're paying a construction manager, we're paying an architect, why would we pay somebody else to commission our building?’

It's a cost-avoidance issue, so it's sometimes hard to quantify. You don't know what you actually save because you avoided those costs. Same thing with life-cycle costing. To make the argument that our operational costs are going to be less over the life of this building if we go with a higher-end unit, or whatever, can be a difficult one; it takes some skill. The reality is it's going to be 10 years down the road before we really feel the effects of not having chosen that better system. A lot of folks will be gone by then. It takes some dedication and commitment to make that argument.

YOUNG: There are some people that conceptually would agree with [life-cycle costing], but their whole point is that they want to spend the least amount of money now, and that's the bottom line. But that's where, again, dealing with the data and your presentation skills to be able to sell the point can make a difference.

LITTLE: We're seeing some districts in Michigan that are committing to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) specifications when they go out to build buildings. And when you go out for LEED, by having those components in your building and committing to those things, it automatically gets you the longer life-cycle components in that building. It's encouraging that more districts are embracing that.

LARSON: Washington recently passed the LEED Silver program, so now new school buildings will have to meet the LEED Silver standards. There are a lot of pros and cons about LEED as far as the extra cost in a building. There are some questions about sustainable materials, and are they durable materials? I don't have all the facts on that, but I do know I like the word ‘durable.’ It means it's going to last a long time.

AS&U: How are such issues as indoor air quality (IAQ), mold and other health issues impacting the way maintenance and operations is handled at your institution?

YOUNG: That's probably the biggest thing we worry about — indoor air quality — because that causes the most amount of problems in the classroom, with parents and in the press.

We spend a lot more time in terms of making sure that our roofs stay repaired. And instead of relying on our own people to go up there and make patches, we enter into maintenance agreements with an outside company to come out and inspect the roofs three times a year and perform repairs as needed. Our first thing is keeping the water out.

The second thing in relation to indoor air quality that really heightens our attention is when a youngster, a parent, a teacher or staff member complains. In the past I could have heard myself say ‘open up a window; get some fresh air.’ But now as soon as we receive any type of environmental issue, we immediately go and investigate it. And by bringing somebody right in, getting their formal report, then sharing it with the principal and the building representative for the teachers' association, as well as the person that had the issue, we find that we're closing the loop.

By having everything right up front with what the results were and the actions that we took, we're developing more confidence on the part of the people in the buildings who have the belief that we care and that we address these things.

RENY: We've formed committees in all of our buildings so that there's a building-level committee dealing with indoor air quality in each of our schools. They're involved in the initial response, they're involved in the evaluation process, and also in the final result. So that's been a real benefit for us throughout the district.

LARSON: When it comes to mold, at the first sign of mold we will bring our environmental people in, an abatement crew, set up a clean room, make very visible what we are doing and share the report with the school. We take no chance when it comes to mold.

The roundtable was held at SchoolDude University, Myrtle Beach, N.C.

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