By Madelynn Coldiron
Kentucky education department officials are scrambling to jerry-rig a way to finish evaluating 700 or so school buildings using a new system for assessing their condition.
Only about a third of the state’s school buildings were reclassified under a new rating system created last year, at the direction of the 2010 General Assembly. The funding earmarked for the work covered the cost of developing the new program and evaluating those buildings in the worst condition. But the 2012-14 state budget did not provide funding to carry out the rest of the evaluations.
“The challenge isn’t particularly what to do – I think we know what to do – by and large folks were fairly pleased with the results of the (new) evaluation. The real problem is how you pay to sustain any system when there’s no funding particularly allocated for that,” said Kay Kennedy, director of the state education department’s Division of District Support.
The situation leaves the old system of classification covering two-thirds of facilities while the new, more detailed and standardized one covers the remainder. The building assessments are the foundation for school facilities planning, which is done every four years.
The situation is “very confusing,” said Taylor County Superintendent Roger Cook, who finally saw one of his schools given the lowest classification – called category 5 – under the old system, only to see both that rating and hoped-for funding to replace the building evaporate.
“I don’t know where to go right now,” he added. “They should have grandfathered in the category 5s.”
The Taylor County school board is due to update its facility plan this year, “and I can tell you right now, nothing is going to change,” Cook said.
School boards faced with facilities planning should use the new standards, Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said, even if their buildings didn’t get evaluated last year per the new system.
Kennedy said, “We are not particularly interested in rating buildings as a 4 or a 5 or a 2 or 3 or whatever at this particular point.”
For districts with buildings in the new system, the department is hoping to set a once-a-year timetable for them to report any updates to the database that houses all the school building information, Kennedy said.
The new method, called the Kentucky Facilities Inventory and Classification System, was developed by Parsons Commercial Technology Group, Inc. and its partner, MGT of America, Inc. Besides being more detailed than the old system, it uses a formula that factors in educational suitability and national building and construction standards.
Kennedy said the department is determined to continue with the new evaluation process, still using independent, third parties to ensure objectivity. Independent teams were trained to use the Parsons program to carry out the work last year.
One of the ideas being discussed is to contract with and train architects to do the building evaluations, starting with the worst structures. These would be architects who don’t work with school districts so that objectivity can be maintained, Kennedy explained.
Some districts have used their architects to advise them during the facility planning process. The money boards would have used for that service could be shifted to pay for facilities evaluations performed by objective reviewers trained in the Parsons program, Kennedy said.
Holliday cited another avenue as a stop gap: training and coaching local districts on the Parsons system criteria to rate their buildings.
“It won’t matter until there’s funding for the next wave of schools to be repaired,” he said. “We always try not to connect the rating system with funding but the General Assembly typically did use some type of rating system for funding.”
Thus far, the education department and board of education have not put the new evaluation system into regulation form, making its use mandatory, as the General Assembly directed in 2010.
Holliday said the department did not get “clear direction” from the 2012 General Assembly on whether lawmakers were satisfied with the Parsons system and didn’t want to formulate a regulation without it.
“Our results were mixed,” he said. “If your school was high on the list (in terms of priority for replacement based on condition) the General Assembly members seemed to like it. If your school was very low on the list, they didn’t like it.”
Holliday said he hopes the legislature will address the situation in its next session.
The bottom line, Kennedy said, is, whether the department has the authority to direct districts to evaluate their buildings under the new system.
“We don’t really have a regulation in place that requires that at this particular point. How that’s going to play out and ultimately the question of who’s going to pay for it is the real wrench in the whole works,” she said.