Maintenance: A Data Driven Approach

The need for the effective planning and management of school facilities across North America has never been greater. Aging building infrastructure, coupled with skyrocketing enrollment projections, are leaving many K-12 school districts with the need for substantial investment in facility infrastructure — and with the need to convince taxpayers and legislatures of the pressing nature of this investment.

Collectively, America’s K-12 school buildings are in worse condition than those of any other building sector in the country. The 2005 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a ‘D’ to America’s school infrastructure, reporting a need“as high as $268 billion to bring school facilities to good condition.” The report went on to note,“despite public support of bond initiatives to provide funding for school facilities, without a clear understanding of the need, it is uncertain whether schools can meet increasing enrollment demands and the smaller class sizes mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.”

Forming a Foundation for Improvement

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Determining how to plan for future construction, renovation, and repair, while addressing a school district’s existing backlog of maintenance and renewal requirements, requires that a district have an accurate understanding of current deficiencies and their associated costs. Collecting and analyzing this data is critical. Along with future enrollment projections and long-term programmatic requirements, it should provide the basis of any school district’s long-range facilities plan.

Getting a clear picture of existing conditions and costs requires school districts to constantly monitor their portfolios. There are a range of assessment approaches that school districts can employ to collect this information, ranging from audits conducted by facility staff to document system age and condition, to detailed structural or system assessments conducted by outside professionals. Because the age and condition of school buildings may differ widely across a district, using the same methods for assessing requirements across all facilities is often not efficient or cost-effective. Tailoring the assessment approach to the facility can help schools districts most efficiently leverage limited dollars while collecting the data they need to make informed decisions about capital and operational investments.

Detailed facility condition assessments, usually conducted by a professional assessment or engineering firm, provide schools with detailed documentation of the existing conditions of both facility structures and all major building systems. They include detailed cost estimates for addressing all identified deficiencies and renewal needs. Such assessments are most appropriate when facility condition data is non-existent, outdated, or inconsistent; when there are specific system or structural issues that require detailed evaluation; or when the organization requires detailed cost data for the purposes of long-term capital budgeting. Such detailed assessments may be combined with specialized evaluations such as addressing energy efficiencies issues, compliance requirements, or programmatic adequacy. These specialized assessments are valuable — and may be required — when major capital improvements that address a specific type of need are being considered. Such assessments provide the greatest level of accuracy and detail at a concomitant level of cost.

In cases in which a school district has reliable data about the overall condition of its facilities, it may choose to undertake Lifecycle Condition Assessments that focus exclusively on major building systems, documenting age, condition, and the cost and associated timeline for any necessary renewals or repairs. Such an approach can help a school system to identify where it can bundle capital projects such as roof replacements or HVAC system upgrades for greater cost efficiency. It can also help a district target those areas that may require more detailed condition assessments, and provide a foundation for renewal budgeting.

Facility audits conducted by the district’s own facility managers can be a cost-effective option for districts that have the resources to deploy, such as field staff, and that want to quickly collect baseline data or verify current assumptions about school facility conditions. The key to making such an approach work is ensuring that all auditors employ a consistent methodology for evaluating conditions, and have the training and tools to support them. Web-based software for this purpose can help enable facility managers who have little or no experience in building assessment to collect appropriate data, as well as automate the calculation of related costs for identified deficiencies. Obviously, such an approach is not appropriate in cases where specialized systems knowledge (for example, of HVAC or electrical systems) is required.

Finally, for districts that need to quickly get an overall estimate of portfolio-wide spending needs as a basis for beginning the budgeting process, cost modeling is a relatively rapid and inexpensive option. A modeling approach estimates costs based on a sampling of data from relatively few facilities, which is extrapolating across the entire portfolio. The downside of this approach is that, while it generally yields an overall estimate of about 80 percent accuracy, it does not yield accurate estimates for individual facilities. It also provides no cost detail beyond the sample set to “back up” budget requests.

Evaluating and Prioritizing Need

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With accurate information about existing conditions, districts can begin the difficult task of evaluating investment priorities, triangulating based on current requirements, enrollment projections, and programmatic requirements. Benchmarks, such as those for facility and system condition and capital expenditure per student, can assist school districts in beginning the prioritization process. One widely used index is the Facility Condition Index (FCI), which measures the repair costs of a structure compared to its total replacement value. For example, a school that has a replacement value of $5 million and current repair and renewal costs of $500,000, will have an FCI of 0.10. The higher the FCI, the poorer the condition of the school building. Benchmarks can be applied to an entire building portfolio or a specific system within the overall organization.

Most school districts today employ software systems that centralize the disparate data from various facilities, and provide decision support analytics, including the automated calculation of various benchmark metrics. One of the most valuable capabilities of these systems is the ability to project the long-term impact of different funding scenarios on the overall condition of the district’s facilities, and on its long-term costs. “What if” analysis can provide valuable insight in to the investment approach that will most cost-effectively enable the district to reduce its deferred maintenance backlog or achieve a specific FCI across all school facilities. Quantitative metrics, based on detailed requirement costs, enable districts to create objective, data-driven capital plans that can be used to make the case for needed funding to school boards and taxpayers.

Taking a Strategic Approach to Facility Planning and Management

Implementing a strategic capital planning approach enables school facility managers to break out of a common “build-neglect-build” pattern. Many districts across the country attempt to solve rapid enrollment and room shortage issues by constructing new buildings — at high expense to the surrounding community. Often, these new buildings look only to the short term and do not take into account student enrollment 10 years from now. Furthermore, the new construction monopolizes limited dollars that may have been better invested in renovating an existing structure, leading to a cycle of build and neglect as buildings fall into disrepair. By considering overall long-term investment needs — both capital and operational — school districts can break out of this pattern and better make the case for needed funding. Construction and building repairs become long-term investments, instead of quick fixes to larger problems.

By demonstrating an in-depth understanding of current school facility conditions, school districts can create convincing arguments for additional funding to address rapid growth and outdated school buildings, and position the school district for long-term success.

Ray Dufresne is vice president of VFA, Inc., a facilities capital planning and asset management company in Boston.

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