Occasionally, it's evident that a school should be torn down and rebuilt. Walls and ceilings are crumbling, heating systems are inefficient and breaking down, classrooms are not functional, and equipment is falling apart.
But most facility decisions are not so clear cut. Renovation might be more cost-effective than rebuilding. The neighborhood served by a school might feel strongly that an aging building should be preserved. Other facilities on a campus or elsewhere in a district might have a more compelling case for claiming scarce capital funds.
These are the thorny issues schools and universities deal with routinely as they strive to maintain their facilities in the most cost-effective and equitable way. Schools with the most accurate and accessible information about their facilities are in the best position to spend their capital-improvement funds wisely.
With rapid improvements in computer capabilities, most schools and universities can take advantage of facilities-management software programs that give administrators quick access to extensive data about facilities and enable officials to make informed choices about prioritizing projects.
“I would say that (education institutions) are paying more attention to information-management systems, partly because the technology is there to do it,” says Deborah Newby, a project director with the Council of Chief State Schools Officers.
A guide for schools
To help education institutions gather and maintain the data they need to maintain facilities most effectively, the National Forum for Education Statistics formed an Educational Facilities Data Task Force that has put together “Facilities Information Management: A Guide for State and Local Education Agencies.”
“A complete and current education facilities database…can help state and local education agency planners, national policymakers and the general public answer questions concerning the inventory, condition, design, utilization, management and funding of public schools,” the guide states.
It spells out the types of information institutions should compile about their buildings. Such data can help officials identify a school's building and grounds inventory; assess the condition of building systems and components; describe the quality and character of facilities design; evaluate the use of educational and administrative facilities; describe an institution's management of facilities; and report on facilities funding.
“Without consistently defined indicators, policymakers cannot accurately assess the amount of funding needed for school construction, where funds for new schools are most needed, or whether funds are being spent efficiently or equitably,” says the guide.
Effective facilities-management systems can help administrators in six policy areas:
Inventory — How many buildings? What are their ages, sizes and locations?
Condition — Are schools and other facilities safe, healthful and in good repair?
Design — Are schools designed to support the best educational practices?
Utilization — Do the schools provide enough space to handle changing enrollments and community use?
Management — Are facilities operated effectively and efficiently?
Budget and finance — Are funds for facilities adequate, and are they distributed equally?
Among the key measures institutions should take to establish a useful database are a building's functional age; its facility condition index (the cost of fixing building deficiencies divided by the facility's replacement value); the school utilization rate (student enrollment divided by enrollment capacity); net square feet per student; and maintenance and repair expenditures per square foot and per student.
The guide recommends that institutions link their facilities' data systems with other computer systems, such as financial, student and staff accounting systems. Schools also should work with vendors of facilities-management software to make sure that standard data elements and definitions as spelled out in the guide are incorporated into the software programs.
That will allow schools to use their facilities data to make meaningful comparisons with other institutions.
“One of the benefits of this kind of system is to standardize data for decisionmakers,” says John Fink, a planner with the Oklahoma City School District. “If we are going to be asked to report this information, we want our data to be comparable to what is being reported in other districts.”
The guide is available online at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/2003400.pdf (Adobe Acrobat Reader is required).
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com.
Percentage of schools with a written, long-range facilities plan for the school.
Percentage of schools that had planned to make at least one major repair, renovation or replacement to a building feature within two years.
Average age, in years, of a public school building.
Average functional age, in years, of a public school building (determined by date of most recent renovation, or if no renovation has occurred, the year a school's main instructional building was constructed).
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, “Condition of America's Public School Facilities,” 1999.
SIDEBAR: Assessing conditions in Connecticut
Before deciding how and where to spend its capital budget, the Connecticut Department of Higher Education wanted to make sure that it was identifying facility needs accurately and objectively.
The department brought in a consultant to perform a facility condition assessment of more than 4 million square feet of space on 15 campuses. The assessment looked at building accessibility, air quality, appearance, code compliance, building integrity, functionality, energy systems and presence of hazardous materials.
The review found a $147 million backlog of deferred maintenance, $32 million of which was considered critical or potentially critical. The assessment allowed the department to establish a program for addressing long-term capital needs and provide credible cost estimates for the necessary work.
The data gathered is available on the Internet and enables the colleges that are part of the assessment to work more effectively with the department to move forward with repairs and improvements.