Asumag 982 Asu Coverstory

A matter of time: Perspectives on deferred maintenance

Oct. 1, 2014
A look at the causes, strategies, and realities facing schools and universities forced to operate without needed upkeep and repairs.

Deferred maintenance continues to be an ongoing issue for both the K-12 and higher education sectors. At a time when there is stiff competition for enrollment and funding, deferred maintenance can be at once a monetary saving grace and a budgetary nightmare.

The conversation around deferred maintenance effectively began with a study published by the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers (APPA) in 1988, The Decaying American Campus: A Ticking Time Bomb, according to Lander Medlin, executive vice-president of APPA. Since that time there has been national attention focused on the topic and periodic follow-up studies to assess how things have changed, including the 1996 study A Foundation to Uphold: A Study of Facilities Conditions at U.S. College and Universities, which estimated at that time that there was $26 billion in accumulated deferred maintenance, $5.7 billion of which pertained to urgent needs.

Since that time there have been marked improvements in both the K-12 and higher education arenas. But with schools facing constant budgetary constraints and the need to slice the pie into smaller and smaller slices, deferred maintenance remains a relevant topic.

“What has exacerbated the problem was that in 2008/2009 a huge recession hit,” says Medlin. “It threw everyone for a huge loop. Folks have not dug out of it, and it only made everything worse for institutions that were already cutting people.”

The deferred maintenance challenge, Medlin concludes, is how can a school manage and effectively plan with the limited resources that it has?

More Than Peeling Paint

The problems of deferred maintenance are fairly well documented. In higher education, “as budgets continue to get reduced and cut, more universities implement deferred programs that negatively impact the residents and the buildings,” says Anthony Trombetta, director of sales for the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA). Meanwhile, in K-12 schools, he says there is “a direct correlation between the condition and cleanliness of the school and grades, attitudes, absenteeism.”

“The National Institute of Building Sciences did a study that shows that poor building conditions definitely negatively impact teaching and learning,” concurs Medlin.

Given the generally accepted negative ramifications of deferred maintenance on learning and the reality of budget constraints, schools have to be very strategic in how they manage their maintenance.

Planned Procrastination

“The most important thing is to have a plan,” says Trombetta.

This dovetails with recommendations from the National Center for Education Statistics, which advises schools to “Consider a long-range educational facilities plan. Have a qualified professional inspect the condition of physical features of the facility and evaluate indoor environmental hazards.”

This sort of planning is vital to decreasing the likelihood of having to implement costly and potentially dangerous emergency maintenance plans.

“With preventative maintenance you can have a plan,” says Trombetta. “What does your program look like? Is it in writing? Does everyone have a copy? Is your staff properly trained in the appropriate cleaning methods? Are they aware of green cleaning? Sustainable products? Are your employees properly trained to reduce the need for emergency maintenance?

“These are the kinds of questions you need to be asking,” he adds. “Definitely don’t wing it.”

Medlin offers similar advice. “You have to be really thinking about it,” she says, noting that the cost of property ownership and maintenance should be taken into account at the earliest planning stages. “People need to be looking at the costs of owning a space—from space planning and design, to utilities, to maintenance costs—and have a better idea of the total cost of owning a building so that they can make better decisions.”

Moreover, says Medlin, “people really need to be paying attention to preventative maintenance. [Roughly] 70 percent of maintenance costs should be preventative or planned maintenance and 30 percent should be emergency maintenance. But in most cases, the reverse is true. We need to start to flip the ratio instead of creating band aids.”

Public vs. Private

When it comes to flipping the preventative/planned maintenance ratio in higher education, private institutions have had more success than public institutions, says Medlin. “Leaders in private institutions are able to make the important maintenance decisions, so long as the funds are available. The public institutions are unable to make these decisions because the legislature is in the middle of it.”

In addition, public colleges and universities are “vying for funds with so many other entities,” she says. “They are behind Medicare, K-12—they are even behind prisons.” When it comes to public infrastructure, K-12 has an advantage over higher education in respect to state financial priorities, but K-12 must also contend with insufficient enrollment numbers and decreased sales tax revenue due to lack of consumer confidence in the economy, Medlin explains.

“K-12 often have less resources because they are local and want to remain local. So they often don’t have sufficient enrollment to support necessary maintenance,” says Medlin. “But it can also be a good thing that they are local because they can benefit from people taking local action. You have a local board make local decisions and parents paying attention to the schools where their children are going,” she said.

Pay Now or Pay Later

In addition, “some people have been smart by critically assessing what they need for their enrollment numbers and deciding what they are going to build new and what they are going to remodel,” says Medlin.

“Not all deferred maintenance need is bad, but we want to be conscious about what we are deferring,” she adds. For example, if a school is considering a major renovation it may make more sense to defer certain projects in order to get better life out of its systems. Another approach is to adequately budget for the cost of maintenance. “The best strategy is to figure out what is needed to adequately maintain the schools,“ says Trombetta. “There are programs that show how many hours it will take to maintain the school and what the budget should look like. Make sure you adequately staff and maintain the custodial department. Don’t wing it and do the best you can.”

When it comes to budgeting and finding funds for maintenance projects, K-12 and higher education administrators should take a similar approach.

“At the end of the day people need to understand what happens when you reduce the budget,” says Trombetta. “How quickly do the buildings deteriorate? How many more days are people missing because they are getting sick? And what is the cost for that?” Understanding the cost of deferred maintenance and being able to articulate it to the boards and committees that will take the next steps to obtain taxes, state help, and/or fundraising, is essential for facilities administrators, Trombetta advises.

Medlin sums it up this way: “People often use the phrase ‘pay me now or pay me later.’ But when it comes to deferred maintenance it needs to be changed to ‘pay me now or pay me more later.’”

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