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Preparing for a Construction Project

Over the next five years, enrollments at public schools are projected to grow by 1.3 million students. Many facilities already are at or near capacity due to growing population and students remaining in school longer. Planning for the boom now can help save money and time later.

School construction costs are averaging $10,000 to $12,000 per student for elementary schools; slightly higher for middle schools; and $15,000 to $18,000 per student for high schools. These projections indicate a need of more than $20 billion for construction in new K-12 schools. This is in addition to the $112 billion the U.S. General Accounting Office identified as necessary to return existing school facilities to a good overall condition and bring them into compliance with federal mandates.

Exploring options Traditionally, schools are built and operated with local funds and supplemented by state revenue. General-obligation bond referendums are a common but long and laborious procedure to fund school construction. Practical and resourceful use of precious bond dollars is wise.

Rural Rutherford County, N.C., for example, passed a $24 million bond in the early 1990s to replace its 75-year-old high school. The new school was completed for $22 million. The county also needed an upgraded middle school campus for 675 students, which was projected to cost $6 million to $7 million to build new. The district worked with its architect to renovate the abandoned high school for $2 million, which allowed the county to use the unspent money to create a modern, computer-networked middle school with no need for additional school-construction appropriation.

Public and private partnerships offer another source of funds that can reduce the need for public debt financing substantially. Not every school has the opportunity to pursue such partnerships, but it is worth exploring since school-improvement resources are so scarce.

In Washington, D.C., the 72-year-old James F. Oyster Bilingual Elementary School was in drastic need of repair. The city had no way to fund renovation, so a group of parents found another way. Under the financing arrangement-worked out with the school board, city council, city financial control board and Congress-a private developer will take possession of the school's 1.7-acre site. A luxury apartment building will be constructed on one-half of the land and an enlarged, up-to-date school will be built on the other. The developer will pay off the $11 million school-construction cost over 30 years in lieu of property taxes on the apartment complex. Consequently, the apartment building generates tax revenue that otherwise would not have been available, which pays for a new school that otherwise would not have been possible.

Using a prototype In some instances, prototype plans or parts kits can help save time and money. Prototypes are construction documents often developed for a school that already has been built. The school district or architect keeps these plans on file to adapt for the specifics of another site.

A parts kit includes plans for a set of modules-auditorium, cafeteria, school rooms, storage areas and labs-that can fit together as needed to create a fairly standardized, yet still site-specific, school design.

Any prototype plan or parts kit must be modified to adapt to local terrain, soil, north-south orientation, traffic flow, and availability of water, sewer and utilities. These plans are created to be highly flexible for site adaptation.

North Carolina is one example where prototype plans have been used successfully. School districts in the state can refer to a prototype clearinghouse the state Board of Education set up in 1996 via the Internet. If school administrators find a design they are interested in, they contact the architect who retains the design's copyright and the professional liability associated with using the documents. This system realizes some savings in time and money through economies of scale. It does not, however, eliminate the need for an architect.

Avoid the temptation to use stock plans without professional services. This quick-fix approach seems to be inexpensive and efficient; however, the cost actually is much higher than architect-designed facilities over the life of the school, especially when considering the low quality of the learning environment.

Using resources Experienced architects and other professionals often know what works and does not work when funding a school. They can help determine how to create the best possible learning environments, what energy and maintenance systems to use, and what materials and systems to purchase.

The cost of pre-design planning and site-specific design represents less than one percent of the total cost-construction and life cycle-of a building. Thus, a design suited to the specifics of use, site, available infrastructure and climate will pay for itself in energy savings, and reduced operation and maintenance costs. The flexibility and savings of fitting design to site and intended use is one reason to hire an architect.

Many states require qualifications-based selection (QBS), which requires selection on the basis of design-team experience. By basing the selection on quality rather than on the lowest bidder, public entities get more value as its schools-which are likely to have a 40-year or more life span-are conceived and created.

Architectural services go beyond producing the design documents, though. An architect on the planning team helps focus preliminary ideas on real-world issues. Architects can serve the district by administering the construction contract-watching the construction and payment schedules, and making site visits to see that what was planned is what gets built.

Savings across the board from a well-designed building translate into real money to invest in faculty, supplies and improved learning opportunities for students. Others who can help include:

-The state school agency. Trained, informed officials at the state capital can answer questions on state school-construction programs, availability of funds and how to apply for them. They can explain the qualification requirements, applicable laws, and the process of petitioning and campaigning for a local bond referendum.

-Community groups. One of the most important tasks in improving school systems is engaging the community and earning the support of the people who, in all likelihood, will be voting on whether to pay the bulk of the cost for improvements.

-Local elected and appointed officials. The value of close communication among school-improvement groups, the school board and the town or county council cannot be overstated. These officials will get the process started and keep it moving, saving considerable time and effort for groups advocating school enhancements.

-Banks. Bank officers can advise on the school district's bond rating, the payback term of the bond issue, the strength of the bond market and the availability of underwriters. They are crucial to secure financing at the best possible interest rate.

-Engineers. Engineers work closely with the architect and advise on elements such as structural soundness, mechanical equipment, electrical loads and supplies, connections to water and sewage, road building, heating and air conditioning, and fire-suppression systems.

-Developers. Developers can give advice on the possibility of public/private partnerships.

-Lawyers. Consulting lawyers during the planning process is a good idea. They can advise on insurance and other contract negotiations, perform deed searches, help with bond referendums and, essentially, anything that involves the law.

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