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Hard Hat Required

District leaders--even those with limited school construction experience--can successfully manage pr

Superintendent Alex DiNino got two pieces of advice from a fellow administrator in a nearby district when he initially got involved in his district's multi-school construction program: Your job has yet to begin, and wear old shoes.

Whether it's a limited school modernization project or one that calls for multiple facilities to be built, the business of school construction can be daunting--especially when you get advice like DiNino, who leads Mad River Schools in Dayton, Ohio, did. But even superintendents with limited experience in this area need to put on the figurative hard hat to set the direction and tone of the construction process. At the highest level of involvement, top administrators can be a conduit of information to the community, school board and faculty, a source of change-order authorization and a point of contact for the entire construction team.

That's the direction chosen by Nicholas Ignatuk of Ridley School District in Folsom, Penn., which recently built a new $45 million, 350,000-square-foot high school. The superintendent worked directly with the architect and building administrators in the design and bidding processes, attended weekly construction meetings, dealt with community issues, promoted the project and broke the logjams that sometimes occurred between the various construction professionals.

Districts that plan, make bulk purchases and standardize on some materials or products can experience huge cost savings.

Fortunately, many of the major hurdles in a construction project--identifying project needs, securing funding and setting a budget--are accomplished early. But from that point on, it's critical to keep the construction project on track, on time and on a straight course. Here are some tips to help.

Assign a district point person

"You're asking for trouble if you don't assign someone primary responsibility for running your program," says Jim Flynn, senior vice president and national K-12 practice leader of 3D/International, a Houston-based design and construction firm. Most people underestimate the work required in administering a capital facility program, he adds. "At the beginning, it doesn't need to be that person's main responsibility, but it will grow into a full-time job by the time the project gears up."

The point person should have 24-hour-a-day responsibility, notes Jim Moynihan, president and CEO of the Atlanta-based, full-service construction firm Heery International. "It can't be a member of the board, because the board has [its] other priorities and is making overall policy decisions. And it can't be the superintendent, who should be focusing on quality educational programs," he says. A senior administrator or someone else who can bring in the principals or citizens groups when necessary is ideal. Someone too low in the organization wouldn't have immediate access to the district decision-makers.

The structure of some districts makes the choice a no-brainer. Mesa (Ariz.) Unified School District #4, for example, has a dedicated construction department, complete with six staff members who take on the role of project managers, inspectors, schedulers and project coordinators. Director of Operations Dave Peterson says he gets better service out of them because they are district employees. Many are also district parents.

Although Ohio's Mad River doesn't have a dedicated construction department, DiNino employs a full-time person to represent the school system in the field. The former district maintenance supervisor "communicates with me on issues and matters relevant to the program, and I'll interact with the appropriate parties, whether [they are] construction people or the Board of Education," DiNino says.

In some cases, as with Jefferson Township Public Schools in Lake Hopatcong, N.J., the district leader can also successfully serve as point person. The Board of Education has given Gary R. Bowen the freedom to make decisions on its behalf. "My decision to be so involved in our construction was based on my interest and a strong background in both curriculum and construction," he says, acknowledging that educational leaders who are inexperienced in that area may "feel like a fish out of water."

Assemble your team--early

The ideal time to build a team, say administrators and construction professionals alike, is before the job even goes out for referendum. Danny Jardine, senior vice president of The Facility Group, a Smyrna, Ga.-based design and construction management firm, says that programs have the greatest likelihood of success if his company gets in early with the client.

Scrambling to form a team can cause problems. "On our last renovation project, we had a tendency to wait too late, which creates lots of change orders because there are so many things you do not have time to address ahead of time," says Don Amonett, assistant superintendent of operations for Dalton (Ga.) Public Schools. "With renovations, you're going to have some change orders anyway, but if you don't have adequate time to plan and check everything out, you'll have even more surprises."

Do your homework

Finding the best architectural firm and construction professionals through a comprehensive process is one key to smooth construction projects. Some administrators communicate with a firm's previous customers and then visit school sites. Others go with word-of-mouth, relying on recommendations of nearby or similar school districts to get a candid assessment. Jardine recommends accessing the Council of Educational Facility Planners International's Web site,, for a list of nationally known demographers, facility planners, program managers and construction managers. Other resources include the American Institute of Architects, Construction Management Association of America, and the Associated General Contractors of America.

Pre-construction research can take other forms, as well. In Jefferson Township Public Schools, Bowen did an early research survey that created a statistical significant sample of the local population to find out what the community would spend on school construction. "Then we knew how much we wanted to spend, and it increased the likelihood of the budget being passed," he says.

Maintain positive relationships

"If you don't have good relationships between the involved parties, even a good project can go kind of sideways," says Jim Rasmussen, president and CEO of Modern Building Systems in Aumsville, Ore.

Relationship building might entail some creativity on the part of the superintendent. In the middle of a multiple-school construction project, Gary Prest, superintendent of Bloomington (Minn.) Public Schools, knew his team needed a nudge to form a more cohesive unit. So he planned a one-day retreat for the construction managers, the architect and key district personnel.

"We spent the day talking about the best way to work together and about the issues keeping us from going forward in a way that's going to serve us over the long haul. {We talked about] how we deal with difficult issues and how we make sure the kinds of values and principles that we laid out in the beginning of the process are carried through in the rest of the project," Prest says. "The retreat solidified relationships and allowed us to do extraordinary things across a multitude of situations."

Involve your staff in decision-making

Maintenance personnel know your buildings best, so who better to ask for input? These people "have to live with that building and know how the heating system works, how to service it, maintain it," notes Rasmussen.

His colleague, Ken Mero, who is vice president of sales, says, "In most school districts, the facilities people are the only ones with background and who understand what the products and materials are. The business manager and superintendent have far bigger issues than what siding to put on a building." Partnering with school maintenance personnel can help to avoid post-construction problems, too.

"We ask our facility managers what the key issues are that they've been struggling with forever, and then build them into the design guidelines," says William H. Lewis, executive director of facilities improvements for Charleston County (S.C.) School District. He adds that he aims to treat those staff members as clients.

Administrators and faculty often have school design ideas worth considering, as well. While they don't need to be involved on a day-to-day basis, it helps to get their ideas up front, says Amonett. "It can be done in such a way that doesn't promise anything but lets them know that their input is valued."

Reflect educational goals

Many current school buildings were constructed decades ago and are no longer configured to suit the way teachers teach and students learn. So it has become important to align the school design with a district's educational mission and vision.

"The facilities have to be able to support the kind of curriculum that educators want to deliver," says Judith P. Hoskens, senior educational planner and project manager at Cuningham Group Architecture in Minneapolis. "We need to consider the learning component. It's not just a building."

That's just what Bloomington did. The district embarked on a $137-million, five-year construction and renovation plan that, among other things, created small middle schools. "It was in the best interest of the kids and how they learn," Prest says. "If we just went in and renovated and rehabbed facilities and didn't do anything about the programming and the way we are going to educate kids, we'd just be wasting tax dollars."

Cash in on multi-building projects

Districts that plan, make bulk purchases and standardize on some materials or products can experience huge cost savings. Defining a program in the early stages of your construction effort can save as much as 25 percent to 30 percent, says Flynn of 3D/International. For example, instead of buying one or two elevators at a time, the company can buy 100 at once at a better price to cover all 50 schools involved in the construction program.

Lewis says that Charleston standardized on classroom and bathroom design, and came up with a common painting scheme and a standard design on items like hardware, public address systems and flooring. "All our schools now have the same hardware, P.A. systems, fire alarm systems and telephone systems," he says. "We call it strategic sourcing," Long-term relationships with vendors also help in getting better front-end pricing, he adds.

Keep communication lines open

Informing key people in a timely fashion of problems and progress is critical--and often means the difference between a smooth and bumpy ride throughout a project.

Honesty truly is the best policy here. "Trying to pretend like a problem doesn't exist, or sticking your head in the sand, doesn't solve the dilemma," Jardine says. "Being as proactive as possible and fair to all parties is paramount."

The point person should have 24-houra- day responsibility. "At the beginning, it doesn't need to be that person's main responsibility, but it will grow into a full-time job by the time the project gears up." -Jim Flynn, senior vice president and national K-12 practice leader, 3D/International

That includes the community. In Ridley, administrators used a combination of district newsletters, newspaper articles, local TV spots and its Web site to keep parents, students and the community informed on construction projects.

"I did a monthly video tour of the site to update the community on the progress and to keep people focused on the new school," Ignatuk says. A last tour through the old high school before demolition day was named "A Walk Down Memory Lane." The tour "culminated in guided tours of the new school, as well. It was open to the entire community and drew thousands of visitors," he explains.

Periodic construction meetings facilitate communication between the district and construction professionals. In Mad River, for instance, the entire core construction team meets twice monthly for several hours and weekly to cover change orders. A separate, monthly Board of Education meeting allows everyone to discuss any issues that may arise.

Allow time and money for unforeseen conditions

No matter how diligently you plan, there are always some surprises along the way. But they don't have to throw a wrench into your plans, cost more money or delay the project.

A common issue in renovating old buildings is that "you'll constantly run into lead paint, asbestos, mold and other things," says Mark Mardock, vice president of education services for McCarthy Building Company's southern California operation. "In one district, every time we opened up a restroom to bring it up to ADA standards, we found that the plumber had put all lines in horizontally and cut through every stud. It's hard to anticipate that."

Because situations like material delivery problems and weather delays could threaten to put you behind, build extra time into the construction schedule. Recognizing up front that you'll have some issues along the way will give you a measure of security, Mardock explains. "You can't assure the project is going to be completed on time, but you can do everything in your power to proactively lead it to the best completion you can."

Funding contingency plans are also important. "The architect generates the budget upon which the referendum is based. On that budget, the architect must include a contingency allowance for unforeseen challenges, barriers or accommodations that become change orders," Bowen says. A contingency fund is typically in the area of 4 percent to 6 percent of the construction budget, he explains. Architects try not to overestimate the fund's size, since money left over post-construction can bring on public criticism of the board asking for more than was needed.

It's just one more consideration at the end of the day for an administrator in the thick of a construction project. And, says Prest, "If everyone pays careful attention to what they've agreed to on the front end and follows through in a way that has everybody working together," the process will be a smooth one.

Peggy Bresnick Kendler is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Conn.

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