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Fixing it Right

Construction projects can be complex. This complexity is increasing as architects and builders are being asked to design and construct more technically demanding structures. Add political pressures, financial shortfalls, simultaneous construction schedules and an increasingly large group of decisionmakers, and the web of school construction becomes even more tangled.

For many public school districts, modernization can be a daunting process. Establishing a detailed and specific plan at the beginning is critical to success.


Schools are planning more than $33 billion in modernization projects in the next three years. Factor in school additions and new construction, and the total is predicted to reach up to nearly $85 billion. This volume of activity will create a tremendous demand for funding, and the resources to design and deliver the projects.

Having a detailed plan will minimize the risk that a school district will run out of funding before work is complete. In most cases, a district's needs will exceed the dollars available. To ensure the optimum use of dollars, program stakeholders must plan in detail. This includes deciding how to sequence the steps in a project. Because renovations can be messy and disruptive, a district must identify potential problems and minimize the impact of construction on students and staff. This should be done before any construction work has begun.


In many cases, the need to renovate and modernize a school is clear — old electric wiring, asbestos, air conditioning that is run down or non-existent, leaky roofs, inadequate technology, and areas inaccessible to persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, districts' maintenance budgets often are inadequate, and upgrades usually are limited to the most pressing projects.

To clearly establish a comprehensive list of all district needs, an institution should complete a needs assessment of all facilities. In most districts, the school board will approve funds for this evaluation. The district facilities department, an independent architect, program manager or other consultant can complete this assessment.

The assessment will include walking every campus and inspecting each district facility to identify every area in need of improvement. Areas to evaluate: mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems; windows; roofs; Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements; asbestos and lead- paint abatement needs; seismic retrofit; and potential technology upgrades.

Other items related to curriculum also must be factored into this assessment, such as issues relating to classroom- size reduction and special education. The list of needs also should include cost estimates.


In setting up a districtwide modernization program, administrators must establish priorities for spending capital outlay funds. Often, because needs are so great, a district may begin work without clear priorities. But without a careful plan, money can run out before all work is complete.

Before beginning to prioritize needs, a district must identify who will participate in decisionmaking. In many instances, a citizens advisory committee helps set priorities. The level of participation by the community can vary greatly. But the important factor is a district's ability to make timely decisions in the best interest of the schools.

Once a district identifies the key decisionmakers, it should prioritize the needs assessment list. In most instances, the top priorities are projects that will make sure all campuses meet a minimum health and safety standard. This helps to establish a clear perception of equity across the district.

Once these items have been identified and ranked, the district can begin adding discretionary projects to its “wish list.” These second-tier items can be completed if funds are available.


Now, the district can seek out potential funding sources. In general, funding possibilities include federal and state resources, local or state bonds, developer fees, private contributions and special grants. Categorize each potential funding source, based on the certainty and timing of availability. Districts may have to identify specific projects as “contingent” depending on funding availability.

Next, a district needs to develop its program budget. This involves two levels: individual projects and the overall program. For each individual project, clearly define the hard costs (such as the building materials) and soft costs (fees for design, construction management, consultants, permits, zoning and licensing fees). Combining this information with the established priorities helps a district determine an overall schedule for cash flow. The schedule will help define the total program budget requirements.

At some point during the planning, a district must determine which construction delivery method it will use. Some methods are limited by state statute, but in general the options include traditional design-bid-build, construction manager/owner agent, construction manager/general contractor or design/build.


The most important factor in developing a program schedule is a district's educational mission. When developing a schedule, a district must balance this mission against the potential for the modernization to disrupt the mission. The ultimate goal should be a solution that has the least effect on operations, while allowing the maximum opportunity for the modernization team to deliver a cost-efficient and high-quality project.

An experienced builder, in collaboration with other team members, can help evaluate the capacity of the district as a whole and its capabilities to accommodate construction at multiple sites. As they formulate their plans, administrators also must consider summer school schedules, student enrollment shifts and potential community response.

A plan also must take into account time delays or additional costs that can arise from “unforeseen” or hidden conditions that occur commonly in every school modernization. As-built documents from the original construction rarely are available. In addition, many small projects completed over the years are not properly recorded and are just “handled” by district personnel.

Even though school modernization can be complex, the basic elements of proper planning can make the difference between success and failure. The work itself is not necessarily complex; however, all stakeholders must remain focused on the goal of modernizing yesterday's schools into tomorrow's learning environments.

Henry is vice president, education services for McCarthy Building Companies, St. Louis. Henry leads the firm's Education Services Group, which provides construction services for elementary and secondary education facilities nationwide. McCarthy worked on the John Burroughs and Cedar Oak Primary Schools.

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