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Construction wave produces new & improved schools

Many school leaders say they are renovating or building to maximize space and update old facilities
  • Granbury ISD students celebrate the groundbreaking of a high school remodel that includes a new ninth grade wing and a fine arts center expansion.
  •  Granbury ISD’s remodel includes a new ninth grade wing and a fine arts center expansion.
  • Granbury ISD’s high school renovation project is projected to be completed in August.
  • A renovated Methuen High School, part of Methuen Public Schools in Massachusetts, features a new auditorium.
  • Fluvanna County Public Schools in Virginia built a new state-of-the-art high school due to both aging facilities and enrollment growth.

State-of-the-art science labs, green buildings and internet upgrades are among major trends in school construction this year, as districts break ground on large projects that address aging facilities, increased enrollment and technology needs.

The first annual DA School Construction Survey gathered data from more than 1,000 school personnel this past spring. More than half of respondents said their district broke ground on a major building project in 2014-15.

Of the 720 respondents engaged in construction during the past academic year, 42 percent said their schools recently completed or broke ground on major infrastructure renovations, such as roofing, windows, HVAC and technology upgrades. Forty percent of respondents stated they were expanding school buildings and 33 percent were constructing entirely new schools.

Schools also performed many renovations, the survey found. Of the 499 respondents undergoing or completing a renovation project this past school year, some 42 percent reported renovating an entire building. Other popular renovation areas were athletic facilities (21 percent) and technology upgrades (20 percent).

The main reason behind all of this construction? Aging or obsolete buildings, which 64 percent of respondents said had spurred current projects. Increased student enrollment spurred new building in 29 percent of districts surveyed.

New construction trends include sustainability features, says Robert Gorrell, director of the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority and a member of the National Council on School Facilities. In the past century, school square footage has almost tripled, while funding for school facilities has stagnated. “Now we’re seeing schools look for ways to maximize space use and flexibility of use, in part to reduce utility costs,” Gorrell says.

Of survey respondents with no plans for construction in the coming year, 26 percent reported lack of resources as the primary reason. Twelve percent reported lack of need.

In 2011, districts spent more than $12 billion on new school construction, additions and renovations, according to a report from the website Planning 4 Education. That made schools No. 1 in the nonresidential buildings market.

Before embarking on a large construction project, administrators must consider how the district will take care of a new space, Gorrell says. “We often don’t have the personnel in schools with the specific skill set required to take care of facilities anymore,” he adds. Maintaining the facility often becomes a footnote for busy administrators focused on improving student performance, Gorrell says. But regularly inspecting school facilities and doing preventative maintenance are key for saving money over time, he adds.

Below are examples of current and recently completed school construction projects that highlight the recent trends. And a few administrators provide some tips on how you can make the process as smooth as possible.

Granbury ISD

Granbury, Texas

Superintendent: James Largent

Student enrollment: 6,800

Number of buildings: 15

Construction project: High school remodel, including an addition of a ninth grade wing, a Career and Technical Education Center, and a fine arts space expansion

Project purpose: The district needed to move ninth graders to the main high school campus because of travel problems between schools for electives, athletics, band and agriculture courses. Administrators wanted to build a Career and Technical Education Center to better prepare students for the future with programs including health science, culinary arts, engineering, automotive technology and welding.

Cost and funding source: The high school transformation cost $62.3 million of an $85 million bond initiative.

Timeline: Started construction in November 2014; projected completion date August 2015

What is the most important lesson of the construction process?

Renovations are not easy. There is no way to do all the work in the summer, so you just have to have work going on during the school year, which causes disruptions. We have had power outages, water leaks and other minor things that have caused confusion and interrupted our school day. But, the number of days affected has been minimal, we are working with a great construction company that is responsive to our needs, and I keep telling our staff and students, “Short-term pain equals long-term gain.” Our staff and kids have been very patient and understanding and I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when we open the “new” high school. –Superintendent James Largent

Methuen Public Schools

Methuen, Massachusetts

Superintendent: Judith Scannell

Student enrollment: 7,200

Number of buildings: 5

Construction project: High school remodel, including new windows, skylights, cafeteria and 17 state-of-the-art science labs

Project purpose: The high school was built in 1975 as an open-concept building, without walls. Classrooms were divided by rows of lockers and had very few windows.

Cost and funding source: $98 million; 68% came from the state, and $34 million came from taxpayers.

Timeline: Started construction in May 2012; completed in September 2014

What is the most important thing you’ve learned during the construction process?

Be patient. Every single day there will be some type of problem, but you get through it. You have to think of the outcomes. When we saw the kids’ faces walking in, we could see the difference it has made. –Superintendent Judith Scannell

Fluvanna County Public Schools

Palmyra, Virginia

Superintendent: Gena Cook Keller

Student enrollment: 3,550

Number of buildings: 6

Construction project: New state-of-the-art high school in part due to aging facility, enrollment growth

Project purpose: The district experienced significant growth in the early 2000s, and schools became overcrowded and mobile classrooms were added. The majority of schools were constructed in the mid-1900s, and were not conducive to integrating technology into instruction. The new school houses more students and has a career-ready focus.

Cost and funding source: $71 million, which was county funded with loans and bonds.

Timeline: Started construction in 2008; opened in fall 2012

What is the most important lesson of the construction process?

Never lose sight of the sole purpose of building a school of this magnitude: to strengthen the opportunities for our students. Working with architects, construction managers and contractors was a balancing act. However, knowing that this building would open up opportunities that we had never been able to offer in the past was the driving force behind maintaining a focused and positive passion for the project. —Superintendent Gena Cook Keller

St. Croix Central School District

Hammond, Wisconsin

Superintendent: Tim Widiker

Student enrollment: 1,546

Number of buildings: 6

Construction project: Renovate all three school buildings, as well as remodel the bus maintenance garage and add 13,680 square feet to store 18 buses.

Project purpose: The district population has grown steadily, and all three schools are at or near capacity. Additions include an extra 50,500 square feet at the high school, including a 600-seat auditorium, auxiliary gymnasium, team locker rooms, STEM programming space, science labs, and special education classrooms. The middle school will get four new classrooms and an expanded parking lot. The elementary school will add six classrooms, a science lab, resource rooms, and an additional gymnasium. All schools will install air conditioning.

Cost and funding source: $23.995 million; bonds

Timeline: Started construction March 2015; projected completion August 2016

What is the most important lesson of the construction process?

I’ve learned that even with excellent planning, there always are unforeseen obstacles. Right now, the skyrocketing costs of construction are presenting some budget challenges with portions of our design development. —Superintendent Tim Widiker

Sioux City Community School District

Sioux City, Iowa

Superintendent: Paul Gausman

Student enrollment: 14,350

Number of buildings: 28

Construction project: Building three new elementary schools

Project purpose: Before 1998, the district had the oldest set of school buildings in operation in the state. To handle enrollment growth and update its facilities, the district is replacing buildings that opened between 1890 and 1921. Morningside Elementary School will open this month, replacing two elementary schools built in 1902 and 1921. Construction continues on another elementary school, which will open in August 2016. The district is renovating Clark Elementary School. It also plans to open another elementary school in 2019 to replace a facility that dates back to 1890.

Cost and funding source: $59.6 million; 10-year local option sales tax passed in 1998

Timeline: Construction started in 2013; the three schools will open in 2015, 2016 and 2019.

What is the most important lesson of the construction process?

Technology changes very rapidly. It is not uncommon to modify the original design during construction due to technology evolution. We added SMART boards and items that were not in our original plans. —District spokesperson Alison Benson

Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton Public Schools

Janesville, Minnesota

Superintendent: Bill Adams

Student enrollment: 620

Number of buildings: 1

Construction project: Added a security system to the K12 building

Project purpose: The district’s K12 building had no security checkpoint, and visitors had the ability to access the building freely. So the district added administrative offices in the front of the building, where all visitors must be buzzed in and must sign in via a school visitor management system to check their background.

Cost and funding source: $1 million; lease levy, lease purchase, capital facilities bonds, health and safety levy

Timeline: Started construction on the administrative offices in July 2014; completed in January 2015.

What is the most important lesson of the construction process?

Although it can be a real challenge, the end product makes the process worth the time and effort. —Superintendent Bill Adams

Hatboro-Horsham Public Schools

Horsham, Pennsylvania

Superintendent: Curtis Griffin

Student enrollment: 5,000

Number of buildings: 7

Construction project: Building a new sustainable elementary school

Project purpose: Hallowell Elementary School was built in 1961, and needs a replacement due to age and deterioration. The new 88,000-square-foot building will accommodate 600 students, with the capacity to create additional classroom space for up to 750. The building will also achieve LEED Gold Status, and the district received a high performance grant for $2 million.

Cost and funding source: $31.3 million, which was paid with two general obligation bonds plus a federal LEED grant.

Timeline: Construction began summer 2015; projected completion in April 2017

What is the most important lesson of the construction process?

So far, we have learned that thoughtful planning and using the varied insights of our staff members, families, students and community members can help lead to a truly transformational project. We know we have much more ahead of us in the construction process, but one should not overlook the leadership capacity inherent in one’s organization and how those capacities can be leveraged effectively to produce some astonishing and remarkable results. —Principal Steve Glaize, Hallowell Elementary School

Alison DeNisco is news editor.