Money Talks, Schools Listen

Jan. 28, 2003
Investing in Education
The push for modernization of the country’s many aging schools, colleges, and universities has strongly impacted the U.S. educational facilities segment.Both public and private institutions have stepped up efforts to revamp or replace facilities that no longer meet technological requirements or code standards. Facilities teams also have taken into account the demands posed on them by end-users – taxpayers and even students who spend each day inside these facilities.Public interest in the state of American education and the buildings where learning takes place is strong. A post-general election analysis piece running in the Nov. 10 issue of The New York Times revealed that voters this past fall were “high on education.” Across the nation, voters showed strong support for education-related measures, including class size and school construction initiatives, even when they voted down other key non-education-related issues on their respective ballots and live in states where budget crises prevail.Case in point: In California, voters passed the largest bond issue in state history – $13 billion for school construction, despite the fact that the state has a $24 billion budget deficit.Similarly, Florida taxpayers approved a class-size reduction referendum that is estimated to cost the state $27 billion over eight years and will likely force tax increases in a state that ranks near the bottom in per-capita education spending.“People are willing to pay for that which they believe in,” says E. Lander Medlin, executive vice president of the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers (APPA), based in Alexandria, VA. “There are many different issues related to facilities and how they relate to their customer. And today’s customer is very different than the customers we had 10 or 15 years ago.”Medlin isn’t just talking about the U.S. taxpayers or alumni of private institutions. She also means students. At both K-12 and higher education levels, those who attend these institutions are speaking their minds about what they want in a school facility in terms of technology, amenities, and comfort.At California State University Los Angeles, professionals from HGA Architects are designing a $23 million dining services and student center. The complex will feature a Barnes and Noble bookstore and will be a “signature” building on the campus. The services and amenities offered by this complex came from comments from the university community and the administration’s desire to provide current and future students with the best facilities they can offer, the architects say.“The president wants parents and prospective students to visit the campus and say, ‘Wow! This is a great place,’” says Michael F. Ross, principal in charge of HGA’s Los Angeles office. “A modernized student center with full amenities is part of the draw.”Instructional Shifts Prompt ChangesStudents’ desire for greater technology in the classroom also drives facilities modernization programs nationwide. At Loara High School in Anaheim, CA, construction has begun on two “Classrooms of the Future.” The rooms are working laboratories that allow teachers and students to sample and assess various kinds of technological advances in a classroom setting.LPA Architects of Irvine, CA, and McCarthy Building Companies Inc. in Newport Beach, CA, are leading the project. Besides traditional technology facets such as laptop computers and wireless connectivity, construction plans also address everything from types of flooring to the color of desks to lighting placement and control.Instead of old-fashioned chalkboards or more modern dry-erase white boards, each of these test classrooms features special “smart boards” that permit what it is written on them to be transferred to a computer program. Instead of the bulky, old television carts, each room is equipped with a digital camera and projection unit mounted on the ceiling. Desks specified for these spaces are easily movable into table formats or stand on their own – an important feature that supports today’s instructional approaches.“Curriculum and technology are starting to work better together. It used to be that curriculum would stay the same. Now it’s catching up to technology,” explains Ray Bordwell, principal and director of Educational Facility Consulting, at Perkins & Will Architects in Chicago. “Curriculum and instructional methods are starting to impact how facilities are being designed. We’re now designing facilities to accept specific student-centered instructional models.”Bordwell uses a Perkins & Will project in Charleston, SC, as an example. The firm has designed a high school there based on what’s known as a “world-view curriculum model,” an instructional approach developed out of the University of North Carolina. “It’s not just about classrooms anymore,” Bordwell says. “Learning is more experiential and based on world learning. It’s more hands on.”Bordwell says we’ll start to see some exceptional “break-the-mold” schools in the next five to 10 years – schools that have turned away from benchmarking as a design determination and instead focus on specific district needs and wants in determining appropriate design.Benchmarking, he says, had its place, but with all the changes in the educational facilities market, comparing one district’s building needs to another is like the proverbial apples to oranges comparison. “There’s no way to really know if what the district down the road did is going to meet your students’ needs and your curriculum,” Bordwell says. “There’s no out-of-the-box solution.”
Finding the Right SolutionIn 1999, the U.S. Department of Education estimated that it would take up to $127 billion to bring our nation’s school facilities into good overall condition. The National Education Association (NEA) estimates that figure is well beyond $200 billion, attributing soaring enrollments and the need to stay current with technological changes as major factors.According to statistics from the NEA, the average public school in America is 42 years old. Twenty-eight percent of the public schools in America are more than 50 years old. Forty-six percent of American public schools lack the electrical and communication wiring to support today’s computer systems.Nationwide, school administrators and facilities professionals are seeking the right solution for their aging facilities. Deficits aren’t limited strictly to technological concerns.Public school officials in Monroe, MI, hope to put a bond issue on the September 2003 ballot, according to Michael Bross, the district’s operations supervisor. While technology is being factored into the programming and planning process, the district has other hot buttons to address.“As far as needs and wants, our high school pool has been deemed non-compliant,” Bross says. “The state has shut it down. When it was built in the 1970s, the depth of it was fine. Now it doesn’t meet the depth requirement of our State Health Department.”The existing pool is 48 inches on entry. The state wants 79 inches, Bross says. The district could revamp the existing pool or build a new one. Fiscally, a new one might make more sense, Bross notes.“By the time you put money into the existing pool, you can pretty much build a new one,” he says. “We will have to do some major things to accommodate it.”The solution comes down to funding. Monroe Public Schools will go to the taxpayers this year. Across the country, other public school districts, as well as higher education institutions, are reaching out for state and voter funding to support both operating expenses and capital improvements. The thing is, most states already are financially strapped – a condition E. Lander Medlin refers to as “resource scarcity.”“The colors of money are not equally used in public systems,” she says. “When you look at the latest national governors’ association report, you’ll see that the states are experiencing their worst financial crisis since WWII. That’s scary, and the public side is feeling the brunt of it.”Robin Suttell, based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.

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