The Big Squeeze

Feb. 1, 2004
School and university administrators continue to look for creative ways to wring more productivity from their tight budgets.

In Baltimore, 1,200 school jobs face the chopping block. In Anchorage, Alaska, school officials propose cutting 322 positions from the coming year's spending plan. In St. Louis, the district must slash $23 million from its budget by the end of the school year. In California, colleges and universities are looking at a $750 million drop in state funding.

The bad news for school budgets kept coming as the calendar turned from 2003 to 2004. From coast to coast, school districts, colleges and universities are eliminating jobs, cutting programs, raising class sizes, and doing whatever else they can to absorb budget cuts and still provide a decent education to students.

Often, the brunt of cutbacks falls first and hardest on areas away from the classroom — maintenance and operations. With depleted funds and fewer employees on staff, school maintenance workers and facility managers still are expected to keep buildings and equipment safe, clean and operating efficiently.

It's not an easy assignment, but school workers across the nation are finding ways to endure budget cuts, as well as work smarter and more effectively.

“We're doing all we can, but we're doing it with less and less,” says Joe Ray, facilities director with the Fort Atkinson (Wis.) school district.

Prioritizing needs

Facilities and maintenance officials may grow frustrated that their budgets and staffs are inevitably at the top of the hit list when the budget ax must fall. Workers know that maintenance and repair are critical to the overall success of a school or university, but those needs almost always will lose out in a competition with needs more directly connected to classroom instruction.

“That's just the reality,” says Rick Denney, facilities director with the Steamboat Springs (Colo.) district. “Maintenance and repairs are not at the forefront of the parents' thoughts.”

So in tight budget times, the most important step for facilities and maintenance workers is to establish priorities and tackle the most vital projects, says Amador Garza, executive director of facility maintenance and improvement with the North East Independent School District in San Antonio. Garza has had to operate his department for more than a year under the constraints of a hiring freeze.

“Life-safety issues come first,” says Garza. “Then you look at health and comfort. We are dealing with it the best we can.”

Many maintenance budgets are so tight that only the most pressing problems get addressed. Deferring maintenance, a longstanding and unfortunate practice among many financially strapped education institutions, may be unavoidable when revenues are depleted, but if schools rely on that strategy for too long, problems spiral out of control. More lights begin to flicker, paint starts to chip, and roofs go a little longer without inspections.

“We don't do as much preventive maintenance,” says Denney. “Those things are turning into emergency repairs.”

For instance, the North East district had been replacing fan belts in equipment routinely every two years. Now, without the resources to keep up that pace, the belts are used longer and fail more often.

“We've had the fire department called out a few times because fan belts have failed and begun to burn,” says Garza. “The building has to be evacuated and that means less time for kids in the classroom.”

Guaranteed prices

Cost overruns on school construction projects can cause headaches for administrators, especially when the school already is laboring under severe budget constraints.

In Steamboat Springs, Denney says the district negotiates guaranteed maximum prices with a general contractor on construction projects. The district knows upfront what its costs will be, and any cost savings come back to the district.

“The incentive for the contractors to come in below the guarantee is to get a good reference from us and to get more work from us in the future,” says Denney.

When a construction budget is tight, Denney also relies on bidding that includes alternate items. If the budget can cover the alternate items, they are included in the project; if not, the project proceeds without them.

Simple steps

Major programs to upgrade equipment or conserve energy often require an initial outlay of funds, which can be hard to come by in an education institution already reeling from budget cuts. Administrators looking to squeeze more out of their depleted budgets may have to rely on small, simple steps.

Some schools and universities have turned to outside contractors to provide services at a lower cost than in-house personnel. Energy-management companies can help schools install more energy-efficient mechanical systems and building shells, and train staff to use energy more wisely.

“We have to work smarter, increase our productivity,” says Garza.

In San Antonio's North East district, after hearing comments from employees that they were often cold in their buildings, the staff eased up on air conditioning by raising the thermostats in its buildings by 2 degrees. That has resulted in thousands of dollars of savings, says Garza.

The district also uses initiatives such as the Environmental Protection Agency's “Tools for Schools” program to help correct or prevent problems with indoor air quality.

“We've gotten the students involved so they pay attention to turning lights off to conserve energy,” says Garza.

North East also has provided each of its building custodians with digital thermometers so they can confirm the temperatures inside their facilities. “When we receive a complaint about the air conditioning in a building, we can verify the temperature there before we send a crew out to look at it,” says Garza.

In Fort Atkinson, Ray says it's critical to thoroughly evaluate all the elements in a building — heating and cooling systems, roofing, windows, electrical systems, lighting — to find which are operating the least efficiently and target them for upgrades.

“If you aren't measuring it, you're not managing it,” says Ray. “You've got to measure what you have and analyze it to make wise investments. You have to look at how you're using energy in order to lower consumption.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

SIDEBAR: Lights! Camera! Revenue!

Many schools across the nation can boost their revenues by renting their facilities to outside groups. In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), it's not just basketball leagues or community groups interested in using school facilities. With hordes of filmmakers churning out movies, television shows, music videos and commercials, they frequently want to use one of the district's hundreds of campuses as a backdrop for their production.

Such filming has taken place in Los Angeles schools for decades, but only in the last two years has the district begun to pursue film production — and the revenue it generates — in an organized way.

In 2002, the district brought in the Entertainment Industry Development Corporation (EIDC) in Los Angeles to serve as liaison between schools and the film industry. The goal: attract more film production to school locations.

In the past, a school's availability for film production often depended on an individual principal's willingness to cooperate with a project. Now, the district has standard requirements, application forms and fees that apply to all filming requests. Since partnering with the EIDC, the school system has doubled its film revenue to about $1 million a year, says the EIDC's Susan Yackley.

“My job is to make sure both sides can cohabit in the school at the same time,” says Yackley.

Principals often need to be convinced that the presence of a film crew on campus won't be too distracting. Filmmakers' requests often have to be turned aside, and production is scheduled to avoid conflicting with students' test schedules.

For a professional production, the Los Angeles district charges $1,700 a day. The EIDC gets about 15 percent; the school being used gets about 65 percent, and 20 percent goes to the district so that even the schools not popular with filmmakers can benefit from the rentals. The district also leases its parking space to production companies filming near their campuses.

“We have had productions in about 165 schools since we've been doing this,” says Yackley. “Just about every day, there are crews filming or using school parking.”

Outside Southern California, the opportunities for attracting film production to campuses are not as great. But schools elsewhere, especially in larger urban areas, may be able to benefit from opening up their campuses to production companies.

“It's kind of fun for the schools, and it provides a little bit of extra revenue,” says Yackley. “And it can provide a learning experience for the students.”

SIDEBAR: Information at your fingertips

With 150 buildings on campuses in Evanston, Ill., and Chicago, Northwestern University has thousands of projects vying for attention. Equipment upgrades, preventive maintenance, routine life-cycle replacements and emergency repairs quickly can consume the available budget and leave many needs unmet.

To make sure the school is spending its scarce maintenance funds efficiently, Northwestern brought in a facilities consultant to put together a comprehensive facilities database. The reams of information collected on the database allow administrators to keep track of conditions in Northwestern's buildings and the equipment inside them. The computerized database allows school administrators to have immediate access to accurate information about which projects are the most critical on campus.

“We use it to track deferred maintenance,” says Bill Hellman, manager of projects data and program administration at Northwestern. “At budget time, we pull it out and prioritize projects.”

The university brought in a facilities consultant several years ago to help it put together the massive database. All the information gathered had been available before somewhere in the university's bureaucracy, but it was never available in one place and was often hard to interpret or judge its accuracy.

“Before, we had all this information on different spreadsheets, and it was easy to lose track of stuff,” says Hellman.

In addition, Hellman says, the old spreadsheets were unable to contain much information on any one project, so it often was difficult to know with confidence whether the scope of a project was being represented accurately. The database used now includes details and background about projects so that administrators can prioritize needs more effectively.

The initial creation of the database is the most intensive part of establishing the system; once the data has been compiled, facilities staff members usually are able to keep it up to date.

Hellman says more schools and universities would establish database systems to help them manage their facilities if staff members were made to feel more comfortable about using the database software.

“People who have never used databases don't understand the possibilities,” says Hellman, “and they don't necessarily believe the pitches they get from the software salespeople.”

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