You are here

Schools shift construction strategies in tough times

Revised blueprints, aggressive campaigns rescue crucial K12 building projects
The new Franklin High School in the Franklin (Mass.) Public Schools will open in August of 2014.

Superintendent Maureen Sabolinski went door to door to drum up voter support for a new high school in the Franklin (Mass.) Public Schools. Sabolinski visited local coffee shops to tell community members they also would get to use the new high school gym, walking track, theater and library.

“I was out every night of the week for four months laying out the rationale for building a new school,” she says. The district had decided to seek a $104 million bond issue to fund a new building rather than renovate. The old high school’s outdated pipes, electrical wiring, and gas lines were buried in cement. The school also had struggled to meet federal Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

“We saw what the renovation would cost—plus the disruption of the learning environment for five years,” Sabolinski says. The new high school, set to open in August of 2014, is on track to come in $8 million under budget. And that’s with designing the new building according to LEED Silver standards, which included reusing rainwater for toilets and installing a roof designed to eventually hold solar panels.

Sabolinski figures that her involvement in promoting the bond issue in late 2011 and early 2012 helped it pass with 80 percent of the vote. Her itinerary included the Franklin Elks and Rotary chapters as well as the senior center and, on Saturdays, the coffee shops. “We sold the project as not just ‘our school,’ but ‘your school’,” Sabolinski recalls. “We told a really transparent story, and we had a good message.”

Construction sees uptick

The price tag for modernizing or replacing school buildings nationwide is estimated to exceed $500 billion over the next decade, according to a report last March by the U.S. Green Building Council. State funding has been plummeting, and the public is losing its appetite for financing major construction projects at the ballot box.

When the recession started in 2008, a survey by the National School Boards Association in 41 states found that 1,000 capital projects—costing $17 billion—were in danger of being cut back or cancelled.

But in the past year, school construction has seen an uptick as educational leaders have convinced their communities to invest in educational facilities. “There’s been an override of the negativity toward school construction projects,” says Roger Smith, the lead architect for New York-based BBS Architects, Landscape Architects, and Engineers. “Maybe it’s the sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel.” Smith reports that during a three-month period earlier this year, pent up demand for school renovations in Long Island, N.Y., led to more than $200 million in successful bond referendums covering five districts.

On the national level, the 2013 edition of an annual report on school construction compiled by the Dayton, Ohio-based Peter Li Education Group notes that districts spent almost $13 billion on building projects in 2012, almost a 7 percent increase from the previous year.

Previous voter reluctance

Over the past three years, voters have denied the Parkview (Wis.) School District $5 million to close two underused elementary schools and add extensions to other buildings to absorb the displaced students. The result left Superintendent Steve Lutzke frustrated, and with concerns about the long-range prospects for aging schools in his small district.

“We’re not going to keep coming to voters to ask them to support facilities to which they’ll vote ‘no,’” Lutzke says. “Doing nothing is not an option. If there’s no investment in our buildings, eventually dissolving our school district might be the way to go.” In that case, he adds, Parkview’s students would have to be absorbed by surrounding districts.

On the other hand, the Hico (Texas) Independent School District—which has lost 200 students in the past four years and closed an elementary school—found a solution to declining enrollment. The district purchased eight portable classrooms at another school to accommodate the students from the closed building. Hico Superintendent Jon Hartgraves says the $300,000 price tag was an easy sell compared to the $1.8 million bond issue the district would have needed to expand the building that was closed. “We didn’t feel like the environment was right for people voting to raise their taxes,” he explains.

Building community support

In 2010, the Riverhead (N.Y.) Central School District, located near the eastern end of Long Island, was unable to pass a $122 million bond issue to modernize and expand its seven schools. A year later, in 2011, district officials returned to voters and passed a scaled-down $78 million proposal.

Gone was the original plan to expand elementary schools from K4 to K5, which would have required considerable construction. The district also scuttled designs for a state-of-the-art gymnasium.

At $32 million, the largest part of the program was about expanding and renovating Riverhead High School. The high school budget encompassed $22 million in spatial needs work, $9 million in facility improvements and $1 million in site upgrades.

The school received a 30,000-square-foot, two-story addition. The money was used on essentials, like replacing antiquated heating systems and leaky roofs. The district also modernized old science labs and built 10 new ones at its high school. Instead of old-fashioned, long-black tables, the district installed smaller workstations—with their own sink and gas connections—where groups of three to five students can collaborate.

And renovations were done on various rooms, including the library, auditorium, and music rooms and special education rooms. A smaller, second addition has a physical education station, including a new weight training room.

Most of the district’s schools are also being enlarged to accommodate a student population that has grown by 200 over the past two years to 5,100. Trailers are being used to accommodate some of the overflow. “We really focused on what was most important for students,” says Riverhead Superintendent Nancy Carney. The tough economic climate allowed the district to issue bonds at under 4 percent annual interest compared to the 5 or even 6 percent rates of earlier years.

What made an even bigger difference, Carney adds, was getting the message out to the public, which did not happen the first time around. Carney formed a 40-person committee consisting largely of business people, parents, and community activists, many of whom had opposed the original bond. The group met twice a month.

“We spent the entire year looking at the infrastructure of our schools,” Carney recalls, adding that the group also toured schools to see firsthand what was needed. “We worked hard at educating the community.”

Building from the ground up

Those concerned with school construction say that over the past five years it has been easier to renovate old buildings than to build new schools. According to the latest survey by the Peter Li Education Group, 2012 marked the first time in 12 years that renovations and additions outstripped spending on new buildings.

That trend should eventually reverse itself, says Smith, who notes that the last time he built a new school was in 2007. “If we have school buildings from 1910 or 1925 still being utilized around the country, at some point we have to ask, ‘Do I do a seventh renovation or do I discard that building and build another one with a 100-year life.”

Adding new buildings can sometimes be more economical. Two years ago, Superintendent Ray Bergles, of the Silvis (Ill.) School District #34, calculated that renovating both the elementary school and the junior high school would cost $24 million. It was almost $4 million cheaper to shutter the dilapidated elementary and build a brand new junior high school that had room for the displaced students.

“The elementary school building was built in 1951 and it was practically rattling underneath us,” Bergles says. “We recently had to replace a boiler for $60,000. We had to keep patching and patching, but why throw good money at the problems?”

Smith, meanwhile, predicts new construction and renovations will accelerate as the economy continues to improve and school districts promote the value of the new building programs.

“The best way to bring these projects to the voters,” Smith concludes, “is by emphasizing to them that you are preserving their assets.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.