Many school districts are undertaking multi-building, multi-year efforts to renovate and rejuvenate their facilities. These projects require tremendous planning, phasing and scheduling skills to ensure that student learning continues as projects advance from design to construction. Before renovations can begin, officials must spend time selecting a team, planning, brainstorming, analyzing the budget and evaluating conditions.

As with any large task, it is easiest to manage a project by dividing it into several smaller pieces. First, a district needs to identify the right educators, planners and parents to be involved in the project. Communications that inform students, staff, parents and the entire community must be put in place before design and construction can take place. Once the project is completed, administrators can seek feedback to gain perspective on the process.

The right people

The first step in the building process is to find the right district representatives and key constituents to brainstorm potential solutions to the issues facing the district. Administrators such as the superintendent, business officials, curriculum leaders and facilities directors have experience and knowledge that can be vital. Principals, department heads and other key instructors are important, as well.

With smaller projects, the key district personnel involved in projects become evident. When discussing multiple buildings with many stakeholders, district officials must streamline the decisionmaking process. All must be willing to abide by the key goals and a mission statement, and avoid turf wars that could lead to frustration, escalating costs and a failed project.

Finding the right consultant team is equally important. Architects help assess programmatic issues and the condition of facilities. Sometimes, an educational planner is hired, especially if the district is considering major changes in its educational program. Usually, a construction manager is hired, especially for larger projects. The construction manager will help estimate costs, and assist with value engineering, constructability of the design, and construction scheduling. In large districts, a program manager may be hired as the liaison between the district and the planning team.

When finding consulting teams for large projects, consider these questions. Does the architect have sufficient resources? Are the architects available to visit the site and meet with school district personnel and the construction manager as needed? Will the construction manager employ enough project managers?

Districts also must solicit the opinions of parents and students. A facilitator may be used in order to gather community input. Community groups often generate ideas for improving schools that administrators and consultants had not considered. They can have significant ideas about how their schools are formed. Participants should represent a cross-section of the community, including geographical areas and grade levels.

Planning effort

Start planning early. Have the key constituencies represented in focus groups. Large districts may decide to hold meetings grouped by grade level, because elementary, middle and high school groups may have different issues. However, if decisions made at one level affect another level, those affected by the decisions also must have input. It is important for a district to think about how its mission statement, goals and objectives relate to the project. This visioning strategy at the start of planning is crucial so that all stakeholders agree on the ultimate goal of the project.

Discuss the objectives of the districtwide plan. The scope of the plan may include space issues, building infrastructure needs, and a reconfiguration of grade levels. Neglected building infrastructure needs can be grouped into one bid proposal to maximize cost effectiveness.

If a district is considering new grade configurations, officials should have a discussion of the pros and cons to alleviate the concerns of parents, teachers and students. Parity among all elementary and secondary schools is crucial so that the constituents view the project as even-handed.

Once a district develops infrastructure needs and plans for each of its facilities, it should estimate costs and determine the effect on a homeowner's school tax. School boards usually want to minimize the tax burden, and at this stage may look for ways to cut costs. The consulting team must disclose exactly what the district may not get if costs are trimmed. Make sure that the estimates include an appropriate contingency, usually about 10 percent of overall project costs.

Community communications

Districts must communicate the following concepts to the community in order to improve the chances of passing a referendum:

  • Objectives of the referendum.

  • The community's role in the decisionmaking process.

  • Description of district infrastructure.

  • Description of programmatic and enrollment-based space issues.

  • Benefits to the educational program and students.

  • If reconfiguration is being considered, a description of the new plan.

  • Commitment that students will receive a high-quality education during construction.

  • Drawings that outline what will occur at each site.

  • Timeline for completing the building program.

  • Financial ramifications, including estimates of tax increases.

Some districts prefer multimedia presentations, some communicate via local cable TV, and others prefer to mail out publications that describe the process. What works well in one community may fail miserably in another. The consulting team must defer to each district's preferred communications approach.

The design and construction process

Major building programs must start with an effort to bring together all stakeholders in a partnership. This will facilitate team building that will keep the project moving forward.

If the bond program is large and involves many buildings, make sure that design and construction schedules allow for adequate time to prepare high-quality construction drawings. This will minimize change orders. Do not compress construction timeframes, or bids may come in over budget, as contractors will have to account for the accelerated schedule in their bids.

Do not underestimate how much time that district personnel will need to spend with architects and construction managers during design and construction. Board members, administrators, building principals, faculty and staff will be required to attend meetings associated with building projects, while continuing to deliver instructional programs. Allow sufficient time for programming meetings early in the process.

During the capital program, make sure that communication channels are open to the school board, administration and the community. Hold regular meetings to track the project, have team members raise issues, and provide speedy responses.

Keep track of budgeted expenses vs. actual expenses. Is the project 50 percent complete with 75 percent of the dollars in the construction contingency spent? This would be a warning that construction costs must be monitored closely so that there's enough money to finish the job.

The last part of the process is the post-construction phase. The construction manager and architect should organize training sessions to make sure district employees learn the ins and outs of their new or renovated facility. Encourage team members to come back to the facility one year after completion and analyze the project's successes and failures. Determine which items are under warranty, so that contractors can correct any deficiencies.

Lopez, AIA, is a principal at Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, Architecture & Engineering, PC, Albany, N.Y. Ruck is superintendent of schools at Sachem Central School District, Holbrook, N.Y.

Laying the groundwork

Enrollment projections for the Sachem (N.Y.) Central School District indicated a student population of more than 15,700 students in 2005-2006. In October 1998, the district kicked off the first of several educational configuration meetings to discuss ways in which it could meet long-term educational needs.

Before that meeting, community members received newsletters announcing the purpose of the meeting. More than 200 community members came together to discuss how the district would come up with a grade configuration plan.

At that time, the district did not have full-day kindergarten. Its 12 elementary schools were K-6 configurations; there were two junior high schools for grade 7 and 8, and two separate high school buildings on a shared campus, one for grades 9 and 10, the other for grades 11 and 12. This arrangement meant that students spent seven years at their neighborhood school, then two years each in three different buildings. The district felt that if children stayed in the same setting longer, they would develop stronger ties to their school and be more successful students.

Over the course of the next year, the community discussed the issues and gathered information. In November 1999, the board adopted the preferred model. It calls for full-day kindergarten, twelve K-5 elementary schools, four 6-8 middle schools and two 9-12 high schools. This plan bolsters the neighborhood school concept, alleviates crowding, and accomplishes the necessary renovations and repairs. Major components of the proposal were a new 150,000-square-foot middle school and a new 400,000-square-foot high school.

Prior to the referendum, district administrators developed a communications plan. At several public meetings, planning options were discussed. Cost estimates were compiled and environmental studies conducted. After four months, the school board decided to seek voter approval of a $228.6 million program.

The district put together a 150-slide multimedia presentation to ensure that all community members heard the same message. It also sent out a district newsletter to all residents so that community members who were unable to attend the public presentations received the same information. In June 2000, the community passed the referendum.

Within two weeks, the district reconvened with a two-day retreat to discuss how to carry out the program. The design and construction team looked at bidding strategies that would maximize the district's buying power. The continuity of the educational program was a major factor in the planning. Project starts were staggered so that the team could manage its resources efficiently.

Weekly team strategy meetings involve the district, its liaison, the architect and the construction manager. At these meetings, project issues and scheduling are discussed. In addition, as projects are bid and constructed, key members of the project team hold biweekly construction meetings to review the progress of each project.

The district is on track for completing the entire program in September 2004.