Educating Schools

Nov. 15, 2001
Legislation that offers new hope for aging schools

By Clara Vangen

Ask students in California what's wrong with their schools and they will describe conditions far worse than leaky roofs and slow Internet service. In a state ripe with cutting-edge technology, school districts are fighting an endless battle to improve their educational facilities.

At a time when Governor Gray Davis (D-CA) seems to be taking a lot of heat for more than his share of population explosion fall-out, his initiatives in finding more effective and efficient means of dividing less-than-adequate educational funding within the state should be duly noted.

There is a piece of legislation about to be signed by Governor Davis that gives school districts the added choice of the design/build process for constructing and expanding educational facilities.

Providing students with adequate computer, Internet, and cabling infrastructures is a large enough challenge in some districts without first having to address issues of facility maintenance problems and extreme shortages of space. "What Bill 1402 does is offer design/build as a viable alternative to the traditional hard bid process," explains Richard Henry, vice president of Education Services at St. Louis-based McCarthy Construction. "Design/build is a very effective time- and cost-saving process that will potentially save school districts in California millions of dollars in time and money."

I asked Henry if the situation with California's educational facilities is as grave as the media would have us believe. His response was that it is indeed as tragic as has been depicted in the news media. "The problems [in California] stem from a huge increase in student population that has occurred over the past 10 to 15 years, compounded by a mandatory reduction in class size. The result has meant an immediate and ongoing need for additional classroom space on budgets that are already stretched too tight.

It used to be that school districts would budget for expansion projects; go through the hard bid process; take the lowest bid; put through a bunch of change orders during the construction phase; go over budget; and then ask for more money to cover those additional costs. Those days are over. The state, in budgeting for school repairs and upgrades, severely underestimated how far the money would reach and to what extent school districts would respond with written requests. As a result, the system was almost immediately back-logged. There just wasn't enough money to address every need.

California then put into effect a job prioritization list, "which bumped some schools to the bottom of the list and others closer to the top based on a specific set of criteria," explains Henry. And so begins the war of wills between government and the education system.

Governor Davis' plan to increase school funding is only part of the solution to the problem. Henry cites similar legislation in Arizona and Texas that has proven to shave substantial time and money off the construction process for schools. "We know that giving the educational community the choice of design/build and then educating them as to the benefits of that process will take some time. I think that it is important to let school districts know that they have choices beyond the traditional methods and that these alternative processes work and work well."

It's interesting to me that in a state where technology is central to the economy, there appears to be a huge gap in providing students with school buildings that can adequately expose these students to technology.

Where will the next generation of technology come from? Maybe California's student body - maybe not.

Clara M.W. Vangen ([email protected]) is technologies editor at Buildings magazine.

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