Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Kicking the Can Down the Road

Breakdown of deferred maintenance

IMAGES COURTESY OF SCHOOL PLANNING SECTION OF NC DPI

Breakdown of deferred maintenance costs statewide in N.C.

There is no better source of information regarding the overall condition of school buildings than with the school district’s maintenance department. The challenge is gathering the information efficiently and developing consistent reports to support funding requests.

A year ago, school districts in North Carolina received directives to fill out the 2015-16 Facility Needs Survey, which is required by state law every five years. The report is used by state and local government to monitor and track funding requirements for public school facilities. Construction and renovation needs for North Carolina schools totaled $8.1 billion dollars over a five-year time horizon. Several states have similar programs compelling local school officials to identify their maintenance backlog and assign prioritized cost estimates. Dr. Ken Phelps, with North Carolina’s school planning section says, “The need to keep track of deferred maintenance is significant in many of our school districts. It is our hope that the facility needs report provides a structure which districts can utilize each year to support requests for funding.”

The need for major repairs to school buildings must be justified and well documented to have the best chance of receiving necessary levels of approval. When information is consistently accurate, current and accessible to funding authorities, available resources stand a better chance. When the opposite occurs, a level of distrust and confusion often results in the withholding of critical resources. This forces deferred maintenance to increase, sometimes exponentially. School officials find themselves in a “run to fail” mode, having to request emergency funding to make immediate repairs.

School districts that begin their fiscal year in July, start the budget preparation cycle in the early Spring. Facilities and maintenance managers are often advised to begin their budgeting process much sooner in order to adequately assess facility needs. There are many different classifications of capital costs that must be anticipated, including construction dollars for opening new schools or additions, resources for implementing new programs or initiatives, and the cost of maintaining existing facilities.

Districts routinely use consultants to conduct facility condition assessments which provide very detailed information, particularly in the area of deferred maintenance. Depending on the district’s circumstances, this may be necessary; however, it can be very expensive and time consuming. For considerably less time and expense, consideration should be given to collecting data by conducting interviews with key stakeholders. A key advantage to this method is that it can be performed from a central location and the process can easily be repeated on an annual basis. The following method for developing a deferred maintenance plan can easily be modified to meet the specific needs of the organization.

Facilities needs surveyData organization

Each deferred maintained item should be indexed by type of building system and by level of priority. The North Carolina survey organizes building systems into nine basic categories which work well for this level of reporting.

Consider the following basic categories:

  • Site
  • Building Interior
  • Building Exterior
  • HVAC, Electrical, Plumbing
  • Furniture and Equipment
  • Environmental
  • Building Code/Life Safety
  • Food Service
  • Technology

Once the total costs of the district’s deferred maintenance is known, there will be a need to make adjustments in terms of priority. Using a simple priority structure will help to determine reasonable budget requests while showing the total amount of backlog. Having the items previously identified will shorten the process when the plan is updated each year. Priorities can be organized as follows:

  • Priority A - Immediate
  • Priority B - Years 1-2
  • Priority C - Years 3-5

Data collection

Develop an interview schedule for key personnel in the district holding firsthand knowledge of specific building systems. Depending on the size of the district, this can range from three to five people to as many as 15 to 20 people in districts with more schools. Starting with the list of building system categories, facility administrators can help identify key personnel to be interviewed. The interview session should be facilitated by a person having broad knowledge and experience with educational facilities. It is important to have a second person to record the data obtained during the interview. It is helpful for everyone to see the data while it is being collected. A spreadsheet template projected on a large screen works very well for this purpose. Do not forget to include non-instructional facilities, i.e. administrative offices, maintenance and transportation facilities, etc.

It is helpful for the person to be interviewed to bring along any notes, lists, inventories they may have concerning their particular building system. As the facilitator moves from one facility to the next, it should be determined quickly if there are any deferred maintenance issues worth noting for the particular building system. If none exist, move on to the next location. If there is an issue, it should be identified with a leading action verb. Most often the operative word will begin with “re…” (i.e. replace, restore, repair, renovate, etc.) The general location of the maintenance issue within the facility should be noted. Each item should also be assigned a prioritization category based upon the timeframe in which it needs to be accomplished.

Cost estimating

It is not necessary to have actual proposals or detailed project estimates prepared by contractors. At this level of planning, reasonable cost estimates based on the related experience of the people in the room are sufficient. There is a significant difference in the development of a deferred maintenance plan and a project plan. Generally speaking, it is unnecessary to determine specific locations, quantities, product types for this level of planning. We simply need to know of the existence of a deferred maintenance item in a particular facility, a level of prioritization, and an approximate cost. Additional, supporting information may be helpful, but it may also overload and delay the reporting process. As the cost estimating process unfolds with each person being interviewed, the review technique becomes routine, cost standards begin to emerge, and a general pattern of needs comes to light.

The key to providing consistent, accurate, and current information related to deferred maintenance is to develop and implement a standardized process. Allowing the maintenance staff to participate in the development of the annual deferred maintenance plan can yield benefits beyond the collection of data.

In organizations concentrating on increasing effectiveness in the classroom, deferred maintenance tends to become the forgotten stepchild. Strong documentation of actual needs (complemented by constituent testimony) can be the key to funding now rather than paying more later.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

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