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School Facilities


Jeffery A. Lackney

Lawrence O. Picus


An effective school facility is responsive to the changing programs of educational delivery, and at a minimum should provide a physical environment that is comfortable, safe, secure, accessible, well illuminated, well ventilated, and aesthetically pleasing. The school facility consists of not only the physical structure and the variety of building systems, such as mechanical, plumbing, electrical and power, telecommunications, security, and fire suppression systems. The facility also includes furnishings, materials and supplies, equipment and information technology, as well as various aspects of the building grounds, namely, athletic fields, playgrounds, areas for outdoor learning, and vehicular access and parking.

The school facility is much more than a passive container of the educational process: it is, rather, an integral component of the conditions of learning. The layout and design of a facility contributes to the place experience of students, educators, and community members. Depending on the quality of its design and management, the facility can contribute to a sense of ownership, safety and security, personalization and control, privacy as well as sociality, and spaciousness or crowdedness. When planning, designing, or managing the school facility, these facets of place experience should, when possible, be taken into consideration.

Constructing New Facilities

During strategic long-range educational planning, unmet facility space needs often emerge. The goal of educational planning is to develop, clarify, or review the educational mission, vision, philosophy, curriculum, and instructional delivery. Educational planning may involve a variety of school and community workshops and surveys to identify and clarify needs and sharpen the vision of the district. Long-range planning activities, such as demographic studies, financing options, site acquisitions, and community partnering opportunities are often initiated by the district administration as a response to the results of educational planning. An outcome of long-range planning is the development of a comprehensive capital improvement program to address unmet facility needs.

The district superintendent appoints a steering committee to oversee the details of the capital improvement program. The responsibility of the steering committee includes the selection of various consultants, the review of planning and design options, and the reporting of recommendations to the school board for a final decision. Depending on the needs of the district, one of the first tasks of the steering committee is to retain a variety of consultants. Educational and design consultants, financial consultants, bond counsels, investment bankers, and public relations consultants are retained to perform pre-referendum planning activities during which project scope, budget, financing, legal issues, and schedule are defined. Once project feasibility is established, a public referendum package is developed and presented to the taxpaying public through public hearings. Upon passage of the public referendum, more detailed facility planning of the school can begin.

An architect is often selected to assist in facility planning in cooperation with the educational planning consultant and in-house facility staff. The school board, as the owner, enters into a contract for services with the chosen architect. The architect, in turn, negotiates contracts with a variety of consultants, including interior designers, landscape architects, mechanical, electrical, and civil engineers, and land surveyors.

The facility planning process at its best involves an assessment of functional needs in light of the educational program developed during educational planning. There are several names for this process: Educators refer to the development of educational specifications, while architects refer to it as facility programming. Facility planning includes any or all of the following activities: feasibility studies, district master planning, site selection, needs assessment, and project cost analysis. Spatial requirements and relationships between various program elements are established. The outcome of the facility planning process is a public facility program, or educational specifications document, that outlines physical space requirements and adjacencies and special design criteria the school facility must meet.

The design phase of the process, which includes schematic design, design development, and construction documents and specifications, can last from six months to one year. Each step in the design process involves more detailed and specific information about the technical aspects of the building systems, components, and assemblies. The design process requires school board decisions and approval, with each phase offering more detailed descriptions of the scope, budget, and schedule. The products of this phase include sketches, drawings, models, and technical reports, which are shared with the school and community through public hearings, workshops, and other forms of public relations and community involvement. Community participation during the earliest stages of the design phase can be as critical for stakeholder support as it was in the educational planning process.

There are several construction delivery methods available to the school district: competitive bidding, design/build, and construction management. Each state has evolved its own laws regulating the acceptable forms of construction project delivery. Competitive bidding is still the most common form of construction delivery. It allows contractors in each trade, such as general, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing, to compete for individual prime contracts and form separate contracts with the school district. In principle, it provides the most open and fair competition appropriate for a public sector project; however, project communication and coordination may ultimately affect schedule and budget. Design/build is most popular with private sector owners but is occasionally used in the public sector. Under a design/build contract, the owner contracts with one firm that completes both design and construction of the project under one contract. Cost and time savings are possible but often with a loss in quality of the product. Construction management is a service that often is established simultaneously with the hiring of the architect. A construction manager's responsibility is to act as project manager throughout the design and construction process, coordinating the project budget and schedule along the way. A fourth form of construction delivery is actually a comprehensive project management delivery service, which includes construction management but also extends from pre-referendum through occupancy and even facility management, offering one-stop shopping for facility development. Large school districts that have multiple projects often contract with project management services. Project management firms offer a wide array of financial, legal, and construction services promising economies of scale.

Following the competitive bidding process, the next phase of the school building process is that of bidding and negotiation. An Invitation for Bids is publicized to obtain bids from prime construction contractors. Most states require the school district to accept the lowest responsible and responsive bidder. However, the school district reserves the right to reject all bids. Once low bids are accepted, the school district, as owner, negotiates a contract with each prime contractor. The architect represents the owner in the construction phase, but the contract and legal relationship is between the school district, as owner, and each prime contractor. The construction of the school can last from twelve to eighteen months, depending on the project scope, material selections, lead times for shipment to the site, weather, unforeseen subsurface site conditions, and a variety of other factors. With the use of school buildings being tied to the school year schedule, project phasing is always an issue that needs to be addressed. Other factors that can escalate cost and slow the project are change orders to rectify unforeseen conditions or errors and omissions in the original construction documents. Once the architect is satisfied that the project is complete, a Certificate of Substantial Completion is issued and the owner can legally occupy the facility.

Facility Management

While the planning, design, and construction of the school facility may take two to three years, the management of it will last the entire life cycle of the facility. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the mean age of a school building in the United States as forty-two years, with 28 percent of school buildings built before 1950. Many of the building materials, furnishings, and equipment will not last half that long and will require constant upkeep, maintenance, and inevitable replacement to defer building obsolescence.

The costs of managing school facilities have historically received much less attention than facility planning. The percentage of the operating budget for the maintenance and management of school facilities has steadily decreased, creating a capital renewal crisis as a result of years of deferred maintenance at all levels of education.

Best practice requires that a comprehensive facility maintenance program be established and monitored by the school district. The maintenance program often includes several distinct programs, including deferred, preventive, repair/upkeep, and emergency maintenance. Responsibility for facility management is divided between the district office and the school site, with the principal being the primary administrator responsible for the day-to-day operation of the school, including custodial, food, and transportation services. Custodians are typically hired by the school district but managed by the principal. Custodial staff is generally responsible for cleaning the building; monitoring the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems; and providing general maintenance of both building and grounds. District staff is responsible for long-term maintenance programs and the procurement of outsourced services for specialized maintenance projects.

Several environmental quality issues have emerged over the past few decades, such as classroom acoustics, indoor air quality, water quality, energy conservation, and abatement of asbestos, radon, and other hazardous materials. Many of these issues require the services of facility consultants hired through the district. Other issues for the building-level administrator include safety and security, vandalism and threats, and acts of violence and terrorism. All of these functions must be conducted within a constantly changing set of government mandates, such as energy deregulation, accessibility guidelines, codes, and other regulations and guidelines at the state and federal levels.

Trends and Issues

Many communities recognize that in addition to school facilities being cost effective, they should be more learner-centered, developmentally and age appropriate, safe, comfortable, accessible, flexible, diverse, and equitable. By location of new facilities in residential neighborhoods and partnering with other community-based organizations, schools are becoming true community centers. In addition, schools are taking advantage of educational resources in the community, as well as partnering with museums, zoos, libraries, and other public institutions and local businesses.

Based on mounting evidence that smaller schools lead to improved social climate as well as better achievement, school leaders have begun to create smaller schools or have created schools within schools.

The design of safe schools increasingly recognizes the desirability of providing natural, unobtrusive surveillance mechanisms, rather than installing checkpoints and security guards. Smaller scaled school buildings allow for both natural surveillance and territorial ownership, where students and teachers are on familiar terms, thereby decreasing the possibility that any one student is overlooked.

The self-contained classroom can no longer provide the variety of learning settings necessary to successfully support project-based, real-world authentic learning. Research indicates that smaller class size is a factor contributing to improved achievement. Learning settings are being designed to support individualized, self-directed learning and small informal group learning, in addition to traditional large-group instruction. Rather than lining up classrooms along a long corridor, instructional areas are being organized around central cores of shared instructional support.

A trend in the provision of professional space for teachers has emerged as well. Teacher office space, including desk and storage, phone/fax, and information technologies, is seen as essential to the development of teachers as professionals.

Information technology is precipitating a variety of changes in the organizational and physical form of schools. With respect to instructional processes, technology is facilitating the movement toward project-based, self-directed learning and individualized instruction. As learning becomes increasingly virtual, web-based, and wireless, it still must physically take place somewhere. As information technology is becoming ubiquitous, more schools are decentralizing technology throughout the school building and across the community.

The trend toward smart buildings, or buildings that are designed and constructed to integrate the technologies of instruction, telecommunications, and building systems, will have increased responsiveness to occupant needs as well as the educational process.

Finally, because of the recognition that spending too much time in buildings can be detrimental not only to health but also to learning, school buildings will begin to connect more to the natural environment visually, aurally, and kinesthetically by including transitional indoor and outdoor learning spaces.

Cost Considerations

Estimates of cost to repair and modernize school facilities nationwide continue to grow from the $112 billion estimated by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) in their landmark 1995 report, to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) estimate of $127 billion in 1999, to $268.2 billion estimated by the National Education Association in 2000.

The construction and operation of a school building involves a substantial expenditure of public funds. The investment for construction, however, represents only a fraction of the cost of operating a school over the life of the building. When life-cycle costs of operating a school are considered (including staff salaries and overhead costs, in addition to maintenance and operation of the facility), the initial cost of the school facility may be less than 10 to 15 percent of the life-cycle costs over a thirty-year period. Properly designing and constructing school buildings for the realities of management can often provide cost savings over time that could in turn provide additional funds for education. Operational costs for power and fuel, water and sewer, garbage disposal, leases and insurance, building maintenance, and custodial staff are important items in the annual budget, competing yearly for funds identified for educational delivery. Building life-cycle cost analysis is admittedly difficult for taxpayers and school boards to comprehend when available building funds are tight, but the rewards in effective facility management are potentially great.


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As public education in the United States entered the twenty-first century, educational leaders and policy-makers were faced with increasing costs for the maintenance and modernization of educational facilities. Driven by two factors–a considerable backlog of deferred maintenance expenditures and needs, and the need to ensure that classrooms have adequate facilities to accommodate the growing use of technology–estimates of the costs for maintenance and modernization of school facilities have soared.

In a 2002 article, Philip E. Geiger stated that as of January 2002 it would cost between $112 and 150 billion to "bring the nation's schools up to good condition" (p. 43). The U.S. Department of Education (DoE) estimated that the cost would be $127 billion. Moreover, the DoE estimated that 30 percent of the country's schools needed extensive repairs and another 40 percent needed replacement of some major component. This suggests that at the beginning of the twenty-first century some 70 percent of schools across the United States were in need of major repairs.

In 2000 the National Education Association estimated that total school infrastructure needs–including technology–amounted to some $322 billion. This estimate included costs of new school construction, additions to existing buildings, renovation and retrofitting, deferred maintenance, and major improvements to school grounds, as well as the costs of technology.

Estimating the age of a school building is difficult because many schools have had additions or major remodeling at some point in their history, either to accommodate more students or to update and upgrade the facility. The DoE found that in 1999 the average age of public schools across the United States was forty years. Moreover, on average it had been eleven years since these schools had been renovated. The DoE estimated the functional age of each building and found that the average functional age of school buildings was sixteen years.

Schools in central cities tend to be older than those in other areas. Moreover, in such urban districts, it has often been somewhat longer since a major renovation has taken place. While the differences are relatively small, high minority population schools tend to be in older buildings as well. Many of these older schools need substantial repairs as well as upgrading to meet newer building codes and fire safety standards.

In addition, it is generally these older buildings that do not have sufficient capacity to meet the wiring demands of new technology. Frequently classrooms do not have enough electrical outlets to support more than one or two computers, and many remain without connections to the Internet, even via telephone modem connections. Wiring for school-wide networks is also made difficult because older construction often has solid walls and no false ceilings where wires and networking cable can be installed. This adds yet more to the costs of modernization for technology.


When faced with a revenue shortfall, most school districts strive to keep major funding reductions away from the classroom. One way to save money in the short term is to defer maintenance on school facilities. While this is often a useful tool for short-term savings, the deterioration in the condition of an improperly maintained building is very obvious and can often begin within a matter of a few years. Given the high cost of building new schools, this approach may be inappropriate in the long term. California, for example, has an estimated school infrastructure need of more than $22 billion, with another $10 billion or more needed for technology.

Much of this could be prevented if proper preventative maintenance procedures are implemented and used by school districts. Geiger provided a list of seven priorities school districts need to consider in developing a high-quality school maintenance program:

  1. A commitment on the part of the board, the superintendent, and senior staff to facility maintenance.
  2. Development of a comprehensive preventative maintenance program.
  3. Adequate funding for both preventative maintenance and capital improvement.
  4. A willingness to consider new ideas for construction and maintenance of facilities.
  5. Continual search for new and different ways to pay for maintenance and construction needs.
  6. Careful review of district goals and policies to make sure facility management receives appropriate levels of funding in the annual budget cycle.
  7. A plan to link academic programs to facility needs.

In a 1999 article, Michael Zureich provided evidence of the success of adopting the fourth priority above, that of considering new ideas. Zureich described three schools where a coordinated design and building committee had led to better use of less expensive and easier-to-maintain construction materials, resulting in reduced construction costs and lower lifetime maintenance costs. He pointed out that it is important to consider the strength, reliability, and life of all construction materials and to plan for maintenance needs in the initial construction. Zureich suggested that schools using this process have reduced design, construction, and maintenance costs by between 18 and 25 percent.


In addition to maintaining existing school buildings, there is a continual need for modernization. This is a far broader need than the typical concern over creating an infrastructure for technology. Many schools built in the past do not provide adequate space resources for the way schools educate children in the early twenty-first century. Efforts to reduce class size across the nation along with growth in the number of students have placed a burden on school facilities and increased the demand for more classroom space. Moreover, teacher efforts to use classrooms in different ways to maximize learning often require additional square footage in each classroom. For example, in elementary schools, the traditional room full of tables has often been replaced by a room with desks on one side and a large carpet in another part of the room where students sit on the floor for certain activities. Some rooms have special corners for computers or for quiet reading activities. All of this requires additional space and reorganization of the classroom space.

In earlier periods, schools were built to meet the requirements of educational methods that are no longer in favor. Many schools built in the 1970s relied on the "open classroom" model where there were no walls between classrooms. As teaching moved away from this model, schools had to spend substantial sums of money to reconfigure their facilities.

Other more mundane changes are also an important part of a continuous modernization process. Installation of white boards to replace traditional chalk boards or changing wall surfaces to make it easier to hang displays and teaching aids can make a tremendous difference in the appearance of a classroom. Yet even these simple things can be expensive, and planning for such upgrades is important. Furthermore, as new schools are built with such features as work areas for teachers attached to clusters of classrooms, the school budget needs to provide adequate funds for work materials and equipment for teachers (such as computers, copiers, and telephones) and for reasonable replacement programs for these important tools.


The growing use of technology–particularly computers–in instruction has placed a whole new set of demands on the construction, maintenance, and modernization of school facilities. Although technology in schools is a much broader concept than simply the use of computers, it is computers that are most frequently thought of in discussions of educational technology today. Schools face problems with acquiring adequate numbers of computers, replacing them on a regular and frequent basis, providing the electrical power to operate them in each classroom, and providing and maintaining the wiring infrastructure needed to keep them connected with the school and across the district and the community more generally.

Computers represent a new challenge to school budgeting processes as they have a life span of three to five years, somewhat longer than typical "current" expenditure plans and considerably shorter than the traditional capital funding models used by school districts. As a result, many districts have had difficulty in purchasing and keeping adequate numbers of up-to-date computers. Some have turned to lease programs; others rely on donations of computers–new and used. Other districts have simply not replaced old and obsolete computers in a timely fashion.

Even if a district has managed to develop a purchase plan to provide adequate computer systems for all its schools, there is still the problem of electrical wiring and connections between computers. Older schools simply do not have the capacity to handle the electrical and wiring needs of state-of the-art computers. Funding for installation of the infrastructure may be available through the e-rate funding, a process whereby telecommunications firms contribute to a fund whose proceeds are distributed on a competitive basis to school districts for technology needs.

Once installed, there are also substantial costs to maintaining computer networks. Updating all of the routers and servers needed to keep the computers communicating as well as repair technicians to fix computers and related peripherals when they break down are essential to successful technology implementation. Funding for all of this needs to be a regular part of a district's budget.

Sources of Funding

The maintenance and modernization needs of schools require both one-time and continuing sources of money, with maintenance and modernization requiring different approaches. Maintenance is probably best funded through budget allocations of current resources. This means that adequate funds need to be allocated each year to be sure that the investment a district has made in facilities is not lost because of premature deterioration of the buildings. Some districts in some states have had some success in getting community redevelopment agencies to provide a portion of the tax increment they receive to stimulate development for school facility needs. Often this money is used to supplement existing allocations for maintenance.

Modernization may require one-time funding options. Some of the alternatives available to school districts include:

  • Bond Issues: By taking advantage of the taxexempt status of school district bond issues, education agencies can often borrow funds for capital projects at relatively low interest rates. Bonds typically require voter approval and, depending on state law, may need to be accounted for in a separate budgetary and accounting fund. Nevertheless, they remain a powerful and relatively inexpensive way to fund facility needs.
  • Special Local Option Sales Taxes: Allowed in some states, these are sales tax increments added to the state and local sales taxes already collected. While such taxes can be a reliable source of funds, local sales taxes may also inhibit development of commercial and retail centers in the district.
  • Voter-Approved Levies or Sinking Funds: Some states allow school districts to levy special taxes for specific purposes such as technology. Others allow districts to levy taxes for a sinking fund, which collects the revenues and accumulates interest so that construction and/or modernization needs can be funded through the cash balance in the fund.
  • State and Federal Funding: Special state and federal programs are sometimes available to fund improvements and construction. Individual state programs to help meet deferred maintenance needs are common, and the federal government has provided funding for school facilities through the Qualified Zone Academy Bond program. In each case these programs provide local school districts with funds for improving or building school facilities.


Maintaining school facilities is important to providing high-quality education programs. More important, by investing in strong preventative maintenance programs, school facilities can continue to serve students for long periods of time. Modernization of school facilities has faced a number of new challenges in recent years with the advent of the personal computer. As new technologies are increasingly integrated into programs of instruction, the ability to adequately finance the acquisition of this equipment and to have the infrastructure in each school to support this technology is also important.


GEIGER, PHILIP E. 2002. "Deferred School Maintenance Creates National Crisis." School Business Affairs 68 (1):43.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2000. Condition of America's Public School Facilities, 1999. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION. 2000. Modernizing Our Schools: What Will It Cost? Washington, DC: National Education Association.

ZUREICH, MICHAEL. 1999. "Yes, Reductions in School Construction Costs Are Possible." CASBO Journal 64 (2):32–38.


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