With its student enrollment climbing by some 14,000 this year, Clark County School District in Nevada has enough of a challenge getting new facilities up and running, let alone keeping up with the ongoing needs of the system's 250 existing schools.
So the administrators responsible for outfitting new schools with chairs, desks, tables and other furniture place a premium on procuring equipment that will last.
“We can fill up a school,” says Ransom Terrell, purchasing supervisor for furniture and equipment in Clark County, which includes the booming Las Vegas area. “But once we fill it up, we can't get back to it very often.”
Very few education institutions are buying as much equipment as Clark County, but most schools are looking for the same things when they purchase furniture: durability, flexibility and comfort.
“We're not accepting the things that we used to,” says Terrell. “We try to go for value instead of just the lowest bid.”
In elementary schools, students typically stay in the same classroom most of the day, so administrators often want furnishings that are flexible — so students can gather in small groups or work independently — and that can be rearranged to provide a fresh perspective. Schools often outfit classrooms with desks that are separate from chairs.
“The desktops are fairly flat, so you can push four of them together and students can work on projects together,” says Greg James, director of purchasing for Springfield, Ore., Public Schools. “In the middle and high schools, we go with the desk/chair combinations. It keeps the classrooms in better order.”
Flexibility is especially critical in Clark County's elementary schools, most of which are on year-round schedules.
“Because of tracking, you have different students and different teachers moving in and out of classrooms,” says Terrell.
Teachers wanted places to store their supplies out of harm's way while their tracks were not in session. The district brought in mobile storage units that could be locked and wheeled away during the times the classroom was being used by other teachers.
Clark County also gives principals and teachers in elementary schools the chance to choose tables instead of desks.
Durability is less of an issue for furniture in administrative areas. Desks and other equipment for those areas are subject to less wear and tear.
“Administrators can get wood instead of steel,” says Terrell. “Pressed wood, really. But in classrooms, it's pretty much steel and laminate.”
Clark County's growth and hectic construction schedule requires the district to include another factor that is critical when selecting a furniture vendor: delivery. For instance, in the summer of 2001, the district is opening 15 schools and doesn't have warehouse space to store all the furniture needed for those buildings.
“What is most important is the ability to meet dates,” says Richard Ennes, director of purchasing and warehousing for Clark County schools. “We call it direct delivery. The supplier moves the furniture directly into the buildings. They have to be flexible and get in and out quickly.”
Chairs and desks made of plastic have been popular with schools, but that material has not always been durable enough to withstand the punishment meted out by students spending several hours a day using the furniture.
James says Springfield had to spend much time and money repairing desks and chairs.
“The seats would crack,” says James. “We would end up drilling rivets in them to repair them. Often, we would have to replace the seat two or three times before the desk wore out. But in the last 10 years or so, they have come up with hard plastic alternatives that are much more durable.”
The harder material also has improved student desktops. “We used to use high-density particle board with laminate on the desktops. I don't know how many we had to replace over the years. Now hard plastic desktops are available. We've been very happy with the hard tops.”
What is a benefit of the harder plastic furniture at middle and high schools — the added weight that enhances their durability — can be a drawback for elementary students, says James.
“Often students are asked to carry their chairs if there is an assembly,” he says. “Some kindergartners can barely lift these chairs.”
The increasing presence of technology in classrooms means administrators have to look at furniture to meet those needs. In Springfield, Ore., officials wanted equipment that would let teachers maximize the benefits of the computers available.
“We didn't have enough computers for every classroom, so mobility became a big issue,” says James. “With mobile carts, you can pull together computers from different classrooms and have a computer lab in nothing flat. We can plug them into hubs and we're ready to go.”
To accommodate the constant moving of machines from room to room, the district needed carts that could travel easily through breezeways and over-door thresholds.
“Most carts had three-inch casters,” says James. “That wasn't big enough.”
Eventually, James found a company that could customize five-inch rubberized casters for the district's computer carts.
“You can roll them any place,” says James.
The heights of the carts also are adjustable so that students of varying sizes can use them comfortably.
SIDEBAR: Clark County's elves
Besides scrambling to furnish the many new schools it opens every year, Clark County School District in Nevada has begun to focus attention on the aging equipment in the 250 schools already in business.
To minimize disruption to a school, the district has established a program that overhauls a building in one night. After students leave for the day, a crew sweeps through the school like a team of elves and removes all furniture deemed no longer usable. At the same time, a second crew unloads the new equipment and places it in the designated areas.
By the time students return to school the following morning, the deteriorating desks and chairs are just memories, and every student has a desk that meets standards.
“All the kids have to do is put their books and supplies into their new desks,” says Ransom Terrell, the district's purchasing supervisor for furniture and equipment.
Before the “elves” descend on a school, a team of inspectors methodically looks at a building's inventory and determines what can stay and what must go.
“If there's a safety issue, it's gone,” says Terrell. “Whatever we leave behind is going to be functional.”
Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.