Sooner or later, every school district needs to undertake a capital project. As a board of education member, it is important to understand what that means and how the process can affect the educational environment in your schools.

It is important to be clear on the distinction between capital and maintenance projects. A capital project is a construction project which involves the replacement or renovation of a building system or element. A maintenance project involves servicing an existing system so as to prolong its life. Obviously, depending upon the systems involved, capital projects can involve a significant investment. Capital projects can be paid for from budget, capital reserve or through a bond issue (referendum). Capital projects are usually eligible for state debt service aid if a referendum is undertaken.

Carefully and thoroughly planning for capital projects helps ensure a smooth design, approval and construction process and a successful completion of the new facilities for your district’s students.

Start by Building a Great Team All endeavors start by choosing a great team. Who are these team members? They consist of the people in your school community- central office administrators, facilities director and staff, school administrators, support and maintenance staff. The team is usually led by the district’s business administrator along with the facilities/buildings and grounds director. While board members aren’t part of the district’s administrative team, it is still important for them to stay informed about the condition of their facilities. Members of your board’s facilities committee may choose to take a more active role in the planning process.

An important member of your team is your design professional, typically an architect. If your district does not have an architect of record (AOR) you should engage one before starting the planning process. Board members have decision-making power over the hiring process for your district’s AOR and should have the opportunity to interview several candidates to determine the right fit for the district.
Architects are uniquely trained to be able to identify and document building conditions. Your architect will help you to organize and plan for your facilities projects.

Know What You Have Before your district can embark on a capital project planning initiative, your district administrators must first understand what is going on in your facilities. This means the business administrator and the superintendent should visit all of the buildings and take a good look around, accompanied by the district facilities director. Board members may choose to accompany the district staff so that they may also be informed. Repeat this process at least yearly as conditions can change.

As you move through this process, listen to input from your school community. This includes administrators, teachers, support staff, students and parents. They can be a valuable source of information. As a board member you have the unique opportunity to hear from your constituents about the concerns they have with your district’s facilities.

One caveat, do not assume that a system is non-functioning or obsolete simply due to its appearance. Many older systems operate perfectly well.

Organization When doing the early planning, an organizational tool is essential to managing the information that has been gathered. A simple spreadsheet can be very useful. Projects can be listed by by school, category and priority. Common categories include life safety, security, building integrity, indoor environmental quality, educational program upgrades and others. Note the choice of these ‘buzz words’ in your category names. They can be useful in helping outsiders understand the importance of a project.
Life safety and security projects include fire alarm systems, public address/threat alert systems, security vestibules, hardware upgrades and others.

Building integrity projects impact your building envelope and include roof replacement, windows and doors.
Indoor environmental quality projects include air conditioning, boiler replacement, controls upgrades and many others.

Projects should also be organized by their impact on district operations. For example, the following categories could describe various facility needs: maintenance burden, negative affect on the educational process, emergencies created by systems failures, expenditures for service calls, labor grievances, indoor air quality, and others.

When prioritizing your projects consider the impacts above and assign a priority based upon same. For example, replacement of a leaking roof will take priority over a window replacement in most cases. Priorities may be assigned as follows: 1- urgent, active system failure; 2- moderate, service issues, potential for system failure in the short term future or impact on life safety/security; 3- plan for replacement due to end of life but no issues at this time and 4- projects that may be desired for various reasons such as educational program, aesthetics, etc.

A very important part of your organizational process is the estimating of costs for the various projects on your list. This is another area where your design professional can be of assistance. Architects have expertise in estimating construction costs and can call upon consultants for more detailed information as needed.

Communication Effective project planning requires good communication. The board of education has a big role to play in this step. The support and buy-in of the board are essential. The school administration should be able to make a compelling argument regarding the district’s needs.

In all cases, a district’s administrators need to be open and honest about the condition of the facilities. This includes the nature of the problem, the potential ramifications of not fixing it, a proposed solution and its cost.

Draw upon your stakeholders to help spread the word. Teachers, staff, students and parents can be strong advocates for facilities projects as these people are in your buildings every day.

Adapt As Needed Effective project planning requires the ability to adapt to changing needs and priorities. You must remember that capital projects can change in scope and magnitude. Priorities may change as well, causing one project to suddenly become much more urgent (for example, a sudden boiler failure).

Adopting the previously discussed organizational methods will allow you to identify and re-prioritize your projects.

Plan Early and Often Project planning should be done on a regular basis, ideally every year just before budget time. The reasons to plan early include:

  1. The cost impact can be determined as your budget planning process begins.
  2. Projects which need to be undertaken will have ample time for design, construction drawings, bidding, award, procurement and construction.
  3. Changing needs, conditions and priorities can be identified and acted upon.
  4. Plenty of time is available for any collaborative process which needs to take place.

A board of education should have a mechanism for regular review of facilities needs and the development of a plan of action for addressing them.

Funding Your Project Equipped with the information that has been gathered, it is now time to build support for capital projects amongst your fellow board members and the community.

Funding larger, costly capital projects can be difficult to do through the normal budget process. Here are some tips for managing larger capital projects through your budget:

  1. The board can approve a transfer of surplus to capital reserve.
  2. Your district can build its surplus by working to cap each budget year.
  3. The district can break certain larger projects down into smaller parts (phases) that can be accomplished over time.
  4. Alternative funding mechanisms such as an Energy Savings Improvement Program (ESIP) may offer a way to fund energy-related projects without a net impact on your budget.

A referendum can be used to fund costly capital projects over time with the added benefit of state support. Most capital projects are eligible for state debt service aid at a minimum share of 40% (for renovation and rehabilitation projects). New construction state support is calculated using a formula based on unhoused students.

Remember these principles when planning a referendum:

  1. Do not bite off more than you can chew.
  2. Don’t “fluff” it up, and take care to avoid controversial projects.
  3. Consider parity amongst buildings and groups.
  4. Add elements to your referendum that may appeal to groups that can help you to get it passed.
  5. Emphasize the state share of the project and the portion of the project that will be paid for with debt service aid.

Many public-school districts completed bond referenda during the time frame from 2000 through 2005, and now have that debt ready to retire. For those districts, now may be a great time to consider another referendum, so existing debt may be rolled over. Your district can consult with its financial advisor on this option.

Execute Your Project Now that the planning is done, it is time to get your project started and, more importantly, completed. Key to this is for those overseeing the construction process to have a project schedule. It is important to know three things:

  1. How long will it take to design the project, obtain approvals and get it out to bid?
  2. How long will the project take to construct?
  3. What impact will the project have on my school operations?

Be aware that many variables affect the above and it is important to identify these as far in advance as possible. Some of these variables include district decision-making, design time, agency review times, availability of labor and materials, contractor performance, weather and many others.

The district should work with experienced professionals to guide the process. The district design professional (typically your district’s architect of record) will lead the effort. Other participants include architect’s consultants, a construction attorney, insurance broker and financial advisor. For large projects consider hiring a construction manager. This professional can provide added expertise regarding scheduling, costs and other elements of a project.

Strategies for Success and Less Stress Capital project planning and execution can be stressful. As a board member you should have an understanding of the strategies which can be employed to alleviate some of the stress on your district staff who are affected by the project:

Some of these strategies include:

  1. Engage a great project team.
  2. Be flexible and realistic in your expectations.
  3. Understand that people and processes are not perfect, and that things happen.
  4. Have a contingency plan.
  5. Maintain open, honest communications at all times.

It is realistic to expect pitfalls in any project and for your team to try to plan for them using one of the strategies above. Pitfalls can include the following:

  1. Factors beyond control- including weather, labor availability, strikes, material shortages and others.
  2. Long agency review times.
  3. Poor performance by one or more parties.
  4. Changes in the work.
  5. Unforeseen conditions- items buried in the ground, walls, floors, ceilings, etc.
    In large capital projects the unexpected can often occur. Board members need to be respectful of the process and supportive of the efforts of the project team members.

As can be seen, capital project planning is a complex process. As a board of education member, you should have a good understanding of this process and be supportive of it. By doing so you will assure that the district’s facilities are ready and suitable for the mission of educating the youth of your community in a safe, comfortable and suitable environment.

Robert Colavita is business administrator and board secretary for the Hopewell Valley Regional School District. George R. Duthie AIA, PP, is a principal with the architectural firm of Fraytak Veisz Hopkins Duthie (FVHD) located in Ewing Township.