Farewell to (Facility) Arms (Race)
Updated: Jun 24, 2021
A really great Director of Facilities once told me that you can always pick out the facilities director at a ribbon-cutting; s/he's the only person in tears. This quip frames the defining mindset of outstanding facilities directors, the daily motivation to fight the inexorability of decay and damage through proactive planning and the readiness to face down emergencies.
The pandemic was just the sort of emergency that forced schools to look closely at the management of their facilities and their place in the budget. Schools that long ago professionalized their maintenance teams and established a separate budget for PPRRSM (provision for plant replacement, renewal and special maintenance) were as ready as one could be for a pandemic. These schools had, over the last several decades, prioritized costly and profoundly unsexy school improvements: new HVAC systems, ADA compliant access, modern windows, doors, lighting and electrical supply, tuck-pointing, insulation and roofing. Schools with years of deferred maintenance, on the other hand, or even worse, those that had no real data on the state of their built environment confronted a logistical and budgetary nightmare this summer. What's the air exchange rating on our HVAC system? Maybe the vendor who updated it in 1993 and has been nursing it along ever since (and never been asked to re-bid the service contract) might know. The upside is that schools in this latter category, with the freshness of last summer's unfortunate discoveries, have the opportunity to set right this critical matter of facility maintenance as long as they protect those line items in the 2021 - 2022 budget and resist the gravitational pull back to the "strategy" of hope.
On average, well-designed and well-maintained facilities were one of the advantages that allowed more independent schools to open safely than their public school counterparts. The most underfunded public schools, existing in once-majestic, now crumbling turn of the 19th century buildings, or in sprawling collections of one-story red brick boxes hastily constructed during the Baby Boom, had gone without budgets for major facility upgrades for decades. Independent schools, by contrast, have always endeavored to make their facilities part of their value proposition. The acceleration of that phenomenon, however, created a facilities arms race over the last 25 years that has energized independent school boards and in some cases led them down problematic paths. Lured by the breath-taking effort to keep pace with competitors, some school leaders entered debt agreements that will limit institutional flexibility for decades, perhaps even prove to be the fatal flaw, or disregarded the conservative voices in the room calling for existing facilities improvements to be included in the capital campaign, or failed to account for the additional maintenance costs once new facilities came online (it's new; what's to maintain?), or made decisions with outdated or no facility master plans. The pandemic has forced schools along this end of the continuum to sober up quickly.
I've written several times this past month about a salutary effect that the pandemic has brought about in schools. In a crisis, people come to terms with what really matters, and education consistently makes the top 5 on that list, a promising prospect already playing out in admission offices. It's also an opportunity for schools to take stock of their core priorities with programs and facilities, and no better tool to use than the budget as a proxy for the things the school values. Do you have a professional, objective understanding of the short and long-term needs of your existing built environment, particularly building envelopes, safety and infrastructure? Does your budget accurately reflect those needs? Have you budgeted properly for the human talent you need to lead and carry out these efforts? Do you cyclically review and re-bid your vendor contracts? Does your school have a contemporary facility master plan, and have you budgeted for a next one? If these questions aren't driving the conversation in your Buildings and Grounds Committee and their contribution to the budget process, now is the time to start.