Thomas Jefferson advised, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” That advice isn’t on a lot of school reading lists today when it comes to facilities maintenance. Few schools have the ready resources to replace aging systems or equipment at the first signs of cantankerousness. Instead, deferred maintenance is the modus operandi.
Typically when school districts talk about deferred maintenance, they’re referring to a wish list of items that need replacement, but that they don’t have the money to address: Mechanical system upgrades, electrical systems, roofing, exterior envelope such as windows and tuck pointing; and site work including parking lots all get relegated to the deferred maintenance list.
Especially for schools confronted with aging buildings, the list of issues can seem overwhelming. But the worst action you can take is no action, says Chad Rettke, senior project manager and LEED Green Associate with Kraus-Anderson. In his job he focuses on K-12 education projects at every stage of need, including needs assessment and deferred maintenance.
“Don’t sit on your hands because you think you can’t afford to do all the work needed,” Rettke counsels districts. Instead, “The most important thing you can do is reach out to a knowledgeable consultant to help figure out what is needed and when. Compiling that master list of work with budgets and timeframes is an invaluable tool for future planning,” he said.
Needs assessments help districts identify stages of needs, from urgent priorities to items that can be addressed in phases over 10 years or more; empowering a district to develop an ongoing deferred maintenance plan.
A deferred maintenance plan works the same way as preventive car maintenance, or preventive healthcare, Rettke said. “The idea is to take care of what you have so it lasts longer,” he said. Moreover, by addressing items in stages, districts take financial control of priorities, while warding off expensive and poorly-timed emergencies down the road.
“Districts also want to level out the tax impact to facilities in the district and avoid spikes. A good deferred maintenance plan can be a big help with that,” said Rettke.
Once a needs assessment has taken place, KA can help schools identify various funding sources that may address their needs, including providing pre-referendum services that build realistic budgets and voter awareness of the need.
In addition, other funding sources may be available, depending on various parameters including school size, location and specific needs. Alternative Facility Funding (AFF), for example, allows certain schools to levy funds without voter approval. A program in flux, AFF has already expanded from eight to over two dozen Minnesota school districts. Other current considerations include closing the “donut hole” of funding opportunities for the 132 state districts that neither qualify for Small School Revenue (SSR) funding nor Location Equity Revenue (LER) These are complex programs and very fluid developments, but definitely bear watching.
Other projects have a tendency to ride along once the school gets the green light to start construction, said Rettke. New carpeting, plumbing upgrades, or classroom remodeling often can be addressed along with infrastructure improvements. In addition, some safety, security and compliance issues such as Title IX updates and ADA upgrades may be available through separate funding allocations. The contractor should be capable of tracking a multitude of funding sources for the school client.
Currently ranked 7th in the nation in the construction of K-12 facilities, Kraus-Anderson performs deferred maintenance projects for school districts throughout the Upper Midwest, working within a variety of contracts and formats. Typically the work is performed during the summer breaks, with larger projects phased over multiple summers. Current projects throughout the Twin Cities metro area include South Washington County (since 2001), Columbia Heights (since 2003) and North St. Paul (since 1994). Bloomington is now in its second year working with KA and its own staff through an Alternative Facility Funding plan. Westonka Schools are in their second year of a deferred maintenance plan that was the result of a successful referendum campaign.
While ‘before and after’ photos can be dramatic, some of the most dramatic results of deferred maintenance are hard to capture in pictures. Energy systems improvements and HVAC upgrades such as dehumidification projects can stabilize the environment and improve the comfort level of staff and students.
“When classrooms are 90 degrees, we know students are not learning at their highest potential,” said Kevin Borg, superintendent of the Westonka School District. “Thanks to the support of the Westonka community, the district was able to address deferred maintenance concerns and make needed improvements to the learning environment.”
“Maintaining our buildings is an important part of being good fiscal stewards of taxpayer resources,” Borg added. “By providing timely maintenance, we were able to avoid larger maintenance costs down the road and negative impacts to student learning.”