The K-12 Capital Improvement Outlook

When the Great Recession hit in late 2007, nearly every sector and industry — including K-12 schools — felt the impact. Today, however, an increasing number of school districts nationwide are again seeking voter approval for improvement and construction bonds. As they consider the needs and priorities of their individual districts, superintendents, board members and other school leaders are working to balance competing factors such as deferred maintenance, renovation vs. replacement, cost of ownership, security and creating facilities capable of supporting 21st century learning.

School Construction News recently spoke with representatives from Heery International — an Atlanta-based professional services firm specializing in program management, architecture, engineering and construction management — about how school districts are bouncing back and reinvesting in critical infrastructure. David Waggoner, former Council of Educational Facility Planners International president chair and vice president and national K-12 market director, based in Heery’s Houston office, and Rob Chomiak, senior vice president and national director of program management in the Atlanta office, shared their thoughts on securing capital improvement funding and keeping schools in top working order in a post-recession world.

Q. How are renovation, expansion and capital improvement needs among K-12 schools changing?

Waggoner: Catching up on deferred maintenance is certainly a trend…because [it has] been neglected over the last eight years when the recession hit. During those years districts have spent money on some things, but not necessarily on the systems that need to be maintained.

Chomiak: I think the type of district — whether it’s urban or more suburban — also impacts programs and priorities. You see different issues with different sized districts.

A lot of districts are dealing with growth. You see a demographic change, especially in urban districts, where schools are not always in the locations that they need to be. Districts are trying to figure out how to either maintain schools that aren’t being fully utilized — or even close them, which is always a huge political issue — and how to get more schools in areas that are growing faster. Land and other things always become an issue when you try to do that.

Q. How might K-12 renovation or expansion projects affect school safety and security?

Waggoner: My philosophy about safety and security is that it needs to be well coordinated with other aspects of a school. It’s a mistake to simply say that the facility will address all the safety and security needs. It really needs to be holistic in terms of operations maintenance, training employees and technology. All of the aspects of a school system and operation need to be engaged in a safety program.

Chomiak: The things that have been happening around the country and around the world [in terms of school violence] have greatly impacted what school districts are looking for in terms of safety and security, to a much more heightened level. A lot more renovation projects that we’re seeing now are very specific to those changes.

From a technology standpoint, it’s almost been an improvement. For a while the big push was to add technology, which meant adding a lot of low-voltage cabling to classrooms, a lot of infrastructure. As technology has progressed, it’s actually eased off of that because of improvements in wireless capabilities of systems. You don’t necessarily have to run as much cable or have as much backbone in the school as you used to.

Q. Can renovation and improvement projects really deliver 21st century learning spaces, or does modern education more often require new facilities?

Waggoner: We want to try to house 21st century learning styles and approaches in existing facilities, but it can be a challenge depending on how the existing building is constructed. A lot of it has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis simply because a lot of the older school buildings are built as double-loaded corridors. They may have masonry load-bearing walls that you cannot knock down. So, it’s much more difficult to provide open environments, transparent classrooms and various flexible learning spaces. Certainly it’s easier in a new facility, but it can be done in an older facility if [districts are] willing to spend the bucks and be really creative.

Read more about the outlook for post-recession K-12 capital improvement projects in the July/August issue of School Construction News.