Protect Your Investment

Conditions in world financial markets have improved and activity in the U.S. housing sector has increased, but the economy is still not good for school districts. Many are making substantial budget cuts, often including maintenance and operations.

It’s pretty obvious that school districts must maintain their facilities to protect the investments they’ve already made in new construction and major renovations. However, it’s often not easy to convince the people who hold the purse strings. That’s why it’s time to look to the past for lessons learned.

The current situation is reminiscent of the early 1980s. During that economic turndown of double-digit inflation, school districts experienced many of the same circumstances: money was short, enrollment was declining and maintenance and operations budgets had to compete with other operating costs, such as rising utility bills and teachers’ salaries. This resulted in fewer custodians and maintenance staff, as well as materials and supplies. It also gave new meaning to the term “deferred maintenance.” 

Unfortunately, the deferred maintenance of the 1980s is a major reason so many buildings were replaced or renovated during the past decade.

One of the more dramatic examples of this situation was a large middle school in an urban district of the Midwest. I visited the school in the early 1990s and witnessed what happens when the maintenance and operations budget is cut. 

The school had an indoor pool, but the filtration system had failed. No funds had been set aside to fix the filtration system, so the pool closed. Within several months the pool was drained and the building’s heating system was turned off. After going through a winter without heat, the roof failed. Not only did this ruin the ceiling, but it also caused rapid decay within the interior. The district had two choices: undergo a major renovation or replace the pool. This is a perfect example of short-term savings having a long-term cost effect.

Recently the Council of Educational Facility Planners International bestowed an award on an urban school for undergoing a comprehensive facility planning process resulting in educational facilities that serve the needs of students, staff and the community. Indeed, it was a great project.

Ironically, I visited the school several months prior to the award and was surprised to find five-foot weeds surrounding the building, as well as other evidence that the building, even though brand new, was not being properly maintained. Unfortunately, there is often a mentality that a new school doesn’t need ongoing maintenance. But like a new car, it will eventually fall apart if it doesn’t undergo proper maintenance.

Several states have attempted to protect school facility investments by requiring local districts to implement maintenance plans that establish sinking funds and/or earmark tax revenues for maintenance and operations. Unfortunately, not enough states have mandated these requirements, which mean insufficient funds are allocated for maintenance and operations.

Budgets are tight and school districts are caught between a rock and a hard place. There is no cookie-cutter answer to this problem, yet the overall premise is clear: further maintenance and operations budget cuts will have negative long-term consequences.

This is certainly not the time to cut the maintenance and operations budget because short-term savings have a long-term effect. It’s imperative that we learn from our past to protect our facility investments now.

William S. DeJong, Ph.D., REFP, is CEO of DeJONG, an educational facility-planning firm based in Dublin, Ohio.