Undertaking a district-wide facilities master plan is often an overwhelming task for public school districts. I know, I’ve been in your shoes. Before I joined DLR Group I served as Director of Facilities and Plant Planning, and I personally led capital projects, facility master planning, and facility operations and maintenance at multiple school districts in Minnesota.
During my time working with districts, I recognized that plans are frequently born out of internal and external user frustrations with existing space and facility conditions, compounded by on-going requirements to prioritize projects based on limited funding. Often the most difficult task is planting the seed internally to convince leaders that the timing is right to undertake a large and extremely public planning process amidst many other initiatives the district may have on the docket. My experience has proven those district’s that do recognize the need for a plan, understand the basic master plan concepts, and can link its benefits back to other district goals and initiatives, are often much better positioned to know when and how to start having the conversation with their stakeholders.
Common Challenges Facing School Districts
Realizing potential issues before they escalate is essential in the master planning process. This proactive approach requires districts to look at their facilities and grounds holistically, and to understand how facilities, curriculum, and funding impact each other.
Some of the most common problems districts aim to solve through facility master plans include space utilization, capacity concerns, funding requirements, and educational and operational changes.
- Space utilization is many times the first indication of a potentially larger enrollment issue within a district, especially when designated spaces are functioning other than intended. Some of the challenges I’ve observed include extra classrooms being used for storage, which may signal a decline in enrollment, or teachers forced to use carts for mobile instruction, which typically translates to enrollment growth. In addition, mismatching classrooms, such as using science classrooms for language studies, depicts a change in educational programming.
- Capacity struggles can be felt either in a single building or district-wide. Challenges at a local level may be solved by adjusting school boundaries to allow that building’s enrollment to flux, while challenges across the district are more complex. An increase in overall enrollment necessitates more space and more schools. On the flip side, a decrease in enrollment may require consolidation and selling a portion of the district’s physical inventory.
- As a public entity, school district funding is limited. Districts often have more projects and initiatives to accomplish than available funding, which forces districts and communities to prioritize projects in a manageable timeframe.
- Implementing new district-wide educational programs is a significant undertaking. The key to successful deployment is understanding how a new program impacts a district’s facilities; whether it is the expansion of a STEM or special education program, a 1:1 device roll-out, or a change in high-school schedule. During the planning process, I often challenge districts to think about what education will look like in 20 years and work to plan their space around those goals.
- The annual budgeting cycle is a prime opportunity to uncover operational changes that could result in reduced energy usage and utility costs. Saving operational dollars allows districts to reinvest in better facilities and/or invest in new educational programs.
Master Plan Components
After identifying the challenge(s) to solve, a district can then move forward with a comprehensive master plan. Most master plans involve common components however, each district should customize the process to fit their specific personality, desired outcomes, and to remedy their targeted concerns. The majority of plans include the following five elements:
- Data Gathering: Be prepared to dig everything out of the archives. If a district is working with a consultant to complete a master plan, that firm will need detailed information such as building and site plans, the district’s strategic plan, utility bills, and emergency preparedness and health-life-safety reports, just to name a few.
- Enrollment Projections: Most districts prepare state reports annually, and therefore have a solid understanding of short-term enrollment projections. When undertaking a facilities master plan, the need to forecast ten+ years out often calls for an independent demographer to be hired by the district. This long-term knowledge becomes increasingly important if there is noticeable enrollment growth or decline, specifically to establish planning thresholds around student enrollment trends.
- Curriculum & Instruction: Educators are amazing professionals and can function in almost any environment. A primary goal throughout a master planning process is to define the type of environment learners will best excel given the district’s curriculum and delivery now and in the future. By understanding the preferred instruction delivery model, a master plan effectively aligns the physical environment with curriculum. For example, space needs for project-based learning are much different that space needs for a traditionally delivered curriculum.
- Facilities Condition Assessments: An assessment of each facility’s building components, including the roof, windows, and mechanical systems, will assist in quantifying the remaining life-cycle of items and estimating a cost for replacement. This information can be merged with new space needs based on educational goals to give each building a Facilities Condition Index (FCI) which helps to determine the cost effectiveness of renovating an existing building or constructing a new facility.
- Energy and Sustainability: Utility costs are a significant portion of any district’s budget, and creating a plan to make facilities more efficient also entails making buildings healthier. Master plans can address Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) issues, lighting upgrades, and physical comfort to ultimately make learning environments better for all occupants.
Master plan components and elements vary district to district, but the one constant is stakeholder participation. Involving the greater community in the planning process is critical to ensure that multiple viewpoints are brought to the table and heard in a transparent manner. Plus, gathering a community of internal (administrators, staff, students) and external (parents, volunteers, business) stakeholders to collaborate often leads to greater consensus of the plan.
The pinnacle of community and district collaboration is often reached with the formation of a core group committee. This committee consists of diverse voices throughout the district and is charged with thoroughly understanding district issues and goals, prioritizing needs over wants, and considering different facility options and costs. The core group’s primary task is to review and analyze community input throughout the process and to make a formal plan recommendation to district leadership and the school board. The final plan includes a recommended budget and implementation timeline, which will vary based on the complexity of issues to be solved and the amount of community participation involved.
When you get to the point of planting that seed because issues need to be addressed, don’t feel like your district has to go it alone. Contact other school districts to learn what they’ve done and reach out to a K-12 educational planning and design firm that can help customize and lead your district through the process. Most of all, take a deep breath and know that having larger conversations with the community is a good thing; as the benefits outweigh the negatives when it comes to planning educational environments that are right-sized, efficient, healthy, and future-ready for both your educators and learners.