The Faster You Go, The Behinder You Get
A constant and significant challenge for facility administrators in public education relates to fair and equitable opportunities for school children. A decision to build a new school, or to modernize an existing facility, inherently creates inequity in the district. Students in the newer schools will benefit from the design standards that meet “today’s” or even “tomorrow’s” program requirements. Meanwhile, other schools throughout the district will deliver the current educational program in yesterday’s school buildings.
And so begins the never-ending task of educational facility planners responding to the cries of frustrated principals, teachers, and parents who feel they have been unfairly placed at a disadvantage. They all want the very best resources for their children and are not bashful pointing out what other schools have.
Clearly, preemptive and authentic communications are required to address the public relations issues. Current information about the location and extent of how schools are equipped can be particularly effective in illustrating the distribution of inequities and making the case for funding-needed solutions. These communications must be planned and released in advance. Reactive communications may appear defensive and will not be as effective. Generally, the community will understand that every construction project included in a long-term capital improvement program cannot be completed at the same time. But equity issues exist even in projects with accelerated schedules, such as the introduction of new technology. Members of the public, staff and students are far less understanding when it comes to the implementation of these projects, particularly if information concerning the district’s overall plan is not forthcoming.
At a minimum, preliminary communications need to deal with three important issues. The first is project schedules. While it is true that timing can be adjusted within certain parameters, some projects (like building a new facility) cannot be done in a matter of days. High-priority projects such as the installation of security measures may be less subject to a lengthy construction schedule, but nonetheless cannot be completed simultaneously at every facility. Of course, the timing of improvements can also be affected by long-lead items or the availability of skilled technicians and contractors to install and complete the work. Facility administrators need to be specific about the planned schedule for the improvements, as well as plans for future phases that will address the disparities.
Related to schedule is funding, and it is the next issue to address. Although the funding for a first phase of a project may be in place, funding for future phases may be less certain. Many improvements are at the mercy of recurring bond referendums, while others may be funded through more continuous sources (e.g. an annual technology refresh account). Gifts and grants from external organizations for single schools also create disparities across the district. A simple explanation of available funding available as well as projected funding is necessary.
Finally, how the particular facilities element will adapt to changing standards needs to be addressed. Even if the schedule is short and the project is relatively simple, eventually the standards will change. Although some districts have solved for this by simply adding additional equipment to their “equity” list (cassette recorders and iPods), others have adjusted their standards to current state of the art improvements, eliminating the legacy improvements. Of course this exacerbates the disparities. “When is our school going to get the fourth generation iPads, instead of the first generation ones that we got three years ago?”
Equity issues will not go away and they will continue to show up in many different ways, (e.g. implementation of 21st-century classrooms, athletic facilities, accommodations for accessibility, distribution of safety and security measures). An effective administrator must assess the risk of his or her actions and act accordingly. In the case of technology upgrades and capital improvements, the better the improvement, the bigger the equity issue. Well-planned and transparent communications and accurate assessments of current conditions are necessary first steps toward getting your public to understand the issues and getting your decision makers to understand the need for additional funding.
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.
Mike Raible is founder and CEO of The School Solutions Group in Charlotte, N.C., and the author of "Every Child, Every Day: Achieving Zero Dropouts Through Performance-Based Education"
Andrew LaRowe is president of EduCon Educational Consulting located in Winston Salem, N.C.