Misconceptions of a School Construction Budget

by David Rosenberg

If it has been a while since your school district has undertaken a major construction project, there’s something you should know: The construction business is vastly different today from what you may remember.

Just as technology has changed the way teachers teach and students learn, so too has technology transformed the way our industry manages school construction programs. Gone are the days when a school construction project had to be planned around the limitations of the contractor rather than the needs of students. Also different are the ways schools buy construction services.

Some misperceptions persist, including these three.

Misconception No. 1: Schools are easy construction projects.

You’d be surprised how many people, particularly in the construction industry, assume that it’s easier to build a school than a hospital or an industrial plant. It’s not. In some ways, it’s harder.

Why? First, there are lots of people watching. While virtually every construction project has a schedule, only school projects are driven by school calendars. Any delay in a construction schedule is painful and costly for the owner and contractor. But delaying a school opening by a week also affects the lives and schedules of hundreds of families. Move it back a second time and be prepared for a standing-room-only crowd at the next school board meeting.

Successful school construction projects are accomplished by contractors who understand how to work with, and sometimes around, academic calendars. For instance, spring and winter breaks, holidays and weekends leave school buildings empty—a perfect time for construction to proceed unencumbered.

The experienced contractor is also sensitive to student and faculty life and knows how to adjust the schedule so that work is completed first in areas where athletic activities, dances and other important events will take place. Only experience teaches a contractor how to construct a school without disrupting the learning environment.

Scheduling isn’t the only challenge. Budget limitations present real hurdles. The everyday presence of students around a construction site creates additional safety concerns. There also are inherent limitations in the approach many school districts take to buy construction services.

Encourage Collaboration

Misconception No. 2: To get the lowest construction price, choose the lowest bidder.

Public school districts generally are required to select the lowest qualified bidder on any contract. Consequently, most follow a traditional design-bid-build approach to construction.

Buying construction this way, however, means that design is completed without input from the contractor who must submit a bid without providing engineering or constructability reviews of that design. While this method is tried and true for many school construction projects, it does not allow collaboration among designers and contractors. A contractor that is brought in early and advised of the school’s objectives, however, can offer time- and money-saving advice on everything from construction sequencing to materials selection.

That’s why an increasing number of school districts now are retaining construction managers for their projects. This allows the contractor to function as a true partner with the designers and the school district and help steer the project through to completion.

How much of a difference can hiring a construction manager make to a project’s success?

Consider the new Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School in St. Louis, where delays in property acquisition postponed construction by nine months. The delay meant the school would need to spend another school year at its old location, which lacked athletic facilities.

As construction managers on this project, our firm had been privy to early planning sessions and understood the disappointment this delay created. We proposed adjusting the construction sequence so the school’s football field would be finished on the original schedule.

By completing the field as originally planned, Cardinal Ritter could hold its homecoming celebration there. The many visitors attending the game could see the new school building rising from the ground, which was a boon to the school’s recruitment and fund-raising efforts.

Construction managers also can help schools stretch limited dollars. Savings generated by the guaranteed maximum price contracting method can be returned to the school and used to supplement other budgets, like those for furniture or technology upgrades.

Shared Expectations

Misconception No. 3: Construction is an isolated event that should be kept completely separate from ongoing school activities.

A school campus is a community bustling with activity. Construction isn’t something that happens over there without affecting other aspects of daily life. A wise construction manager will integrate construction activity so it becomes part of the daily routine for both students and faculty. To accomplish this peaceful co-existence, communication is key.

An experienced contractor can help satisfy the natural curiosity that construction activity almost always generates by turning a project into a learning experience for students. When students’ curiosity is satisfied, you also gain their support and their understanding that some routines might need to change temporarily.

Successful school construction projects result when all team members are willing to communicate their expectations. Share your hopes, dreams and realities with your project team. Tell your contractor how much pain you’re willing to live with. Ask whether your expectations are realistic and listen carefully to the response.

Perhaps most importantly, do all of these things before you begin the design process. Not only will you feel good about the choices you’ve made, you’ll end up with a better finished product.

David Rosenberg is the education business development director for Alberici Constructors, 2150 Kienlen Ave., St. Louis, MO 63121. E-mail: