Jefferson County Schools leaders did not wait on developments at the state level to create a system of assessing the condition of their buildings to plan for future construction needs.
Instead, the district has used in-house resources to devise a program with an end product that captures the condition of a school building on a single, data-packed page.
“There was some frustration regarding our district facilities plan because we’re so large and the need is so great – it was just this big laundry list of stuff we were never going to get to, that we needed to, but we weren’t. And it was difficult to see what building was in worse or better shape than another,” said Michael Raisor, chief operating officer for Jefferson County Schools.
The need for Jefferson County was pressing – it is due to update its district facilities plan, plus the school board wanted an assessment of buildings because creating a sustainable infrastructure is a pillar in the district’s strategic plan, Raisor explained.
“This is one of the things the board has pushed for, and I in particular have pushed for, so we have a really good idea of what we’re looking at in our infrastructure,” said board member Chris Brady. A system like this offers a multifaceted examination of each building in a context that goes well beyond observations such as, “It has a leaky roof. We need to fix the roof,” he said. “My thing is, should we even look at fixing the roof – should we look at, is this a school that we need to keep putting Band-aids on or is this something we might want to look at differently.”
“This report, and this data that we’re gathering,” he added, “allows us to be able to step back and look at the bigger picture and see whether we want to start moving things around and have a plan for that.”
It’s been five years since the General Assembly provided funding to create a revamped statewide model of assessing school facilities – called a Kentucky Facility Inventory and Classification System. The funding that paid for the system developed by Parsons Commercial Technology Group and MGT of America stretched only far enough to evaluate a third of the state’s school buildings and did not allow for updates.
Fast forward to the 2016 legislative session and a new biennial budget that included $2 million in each fiscal year to create a new format for assessing the condition of school buildings, capable of more real-time flexibility. The state education department has been working over the last few months on the parameters of a request for proposals for a firm to devise this new system (see sidebar). One bit of research KDE officials did was to visit the Jefferson County district to learn about the facilities inventory program it designed.
The agency is under a deadline: The budget bill requires KDE to provide the legislature with a list of buildings evaluated through the new process by Oct. 1, 2017. The list is to be updated by Oct. 1 of odd-numbered years, giving lawmakers the information before critical even-numbered years in which the biennial state budget is passed.
Jefferson County’s action
The district began by pulling all the data it had on all its buildings. “Historical data on renovations, when improvements were done, when additions were added and just started, creating this catalog of information we had in different places on one single spreadsheet of buildings,” Raisor said. “That told you a lot, but it still didn’t tell you everything about a building.”
So a three-day summit of sorts was held that involved maintenance, capital improvement and academic staff, and more who reviewed the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for each building, and added that information to the data.
Next, administrators looked at peer districts in other states to see how they handled their facilities inventories. They used the ideas and advice from those districts, plus some of the Parsons method to come up with a way to convert all the data into a useable format. Also based on the experiences in those other school systems, Jefferson County leaders decided against hiring a consultant to put the pieces together.
“They recommended using your own experts who work in those buildings every day and who know about them,” Raisor said.
The finished product uses a quartile system to compare school buildings with one another, based on age and efficiency of systems and overall condition. For example, buildings in the first quartile are recently constructed or improved, while buildings in the fourth quartile have end-of-life and failing HVAC systems.
Added to that data is an industry-standard Facility Condition Index that is a percentage formula that determines whether it’s best to renovate or replace a building. Other factors that are part of the system are capacity and projected enrollment. The one-page summary of each building (see replication above) also includes icons to denote up to 20 other significant areas, such as poor design, traffic issues and age.
The system is easily updatable, Raisor said, and the information can be cut-and-pasted into whatever new format KDE comes up with.
He singled out two aspects that make the finished product so useful: “I think one is just having a visible, apples to apples comparison of all of our school buildings. And then two, its ability to illustrate the need within the district and the criticality of it in certain buildings versus others that our former plans we put together really couldn’t do.”
Though Jefferson County has more staff resources than most districts, Raisor said he thinks an average or even a small district “could do something pretty close to this” with its own staff and a trusted contractor or architect.
Kenton County compares apples to apples
Kenton County Schools faced a dilemma when it came time for a new, four-year facility plan: Some of its buildings were evaluated in 2011 via the Parsons method but many others had been assessed through an older system. It’s a situation that other school districts also have faced.
“Our (local planning) committee was really struggling and grappling with how do you prioritize when you have some schools under one methodology and the balance under another,” explained Rob Haney, Kenton County’s executive director of support operations and finance.
The school board decided to hire the Parsons firm to assess all its buildings in preparation for the facility planning. The company’s teams assessed the physical condition of the structures and also their educational suitability and technology readiness.
Haney said the work went well – the local planning committee held its first meeting in September – but he became concerned about the evaluation method due to what he believes is the potential for subjectivity in scoring educational suitability, which covers areas such as classroom size, learning environment, natural lighting and location.
Rating the physical condition and technology is straightforward, Haney said, “but I think you get into a little bit more theoretical or philosophical measurements when you talk about educational suitability.” This could end up skewing a school’s composite score and affect its placement in prioritizing projects, he said.
“For example, we have a couple of buildings that have had some recent renovations – top down renovations – and yet those facilities are scoring as a higher-prioritized need than some buildings that have not been renovated for many, many years,” because of their lower educational suitability scores, Haney explained.
He said the district will be able to use the physical assessment data in whatever new inventory and classification system KDE adopts. The district maintains its facility database on facility software geared toward schools called SchoolDude.
What we know about the new system
According to Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, the new statewide Facility Inventory and Classification System will be based on “a standard, objective assessment process” and districts and their architects will be trained to assess the physical condition of buildings.
It will include expanding the upcoming Facilities Planning and Construction SharePoint application beyond construction form submissions.
In concert with this work, a new format will be devised for district facility plans, using a construction industry standard that provides what Pruitt calls a “systems perspective.”
According to the commissioner, the objectives of the new system are to:
• Identify how to make school building assessments a continuous function for districts.
• Provide a way to track building conditions and integrate the information into district facility plans and construction projects. This would enable school building scores to be adjusted with each step.
• Implement a process to maintain and update the state report so that it can be provided to lawmakers in October of each odd-numbered year, in advance of the funding decisions they need to make during the following budgetary session.