Assessing the Physical Environment

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine

October 01, 2022

A school district’s attention to long-range facility planning speaks loudly about its commitment to educating students.

Most school districts across the country have a clear mission and vision statement that includes some iteration of the following aspirations: Inspire our students to achieve their potential, prepare for a world-class future and become caring global citizens.


Typically overlooked is any reference to quality school facilities in the district’s mission and vision. Facilities provide a design for the learning environments, creating opportunities for improved student learning. Top-notch school facilities directly impact the learning, personal development and behavior of students.

School districts should complement their strategic, tactical, curricular, staffing and financial plans with a long-range facilities plan. It’s a recommendation that comes from the two of us spending 46 years in the superintendency of Idaho school districts.

Sizing Up Status

A long-range facilities plan consists of in-depth information and statistical data about each facility in the school district. The plan normally covers a five-year time period.

Rich Bauscher
Richard Bauscher, a former superintendent, is an associate professor of school administration at the University of Idaho in Boise. PHOTO COURTESY OF RICHARD BAUSCHER

With the help of an educational facilities consultant, a long-range facilities plan ought to address the following major areas: building history and educational evolution; organizational structure of the community; demographics entered on a base map; grade-level enrollment of students; staffing and program loads; enrollment capacities for each facility; building condition evaluation of each facility; costs to remediate all schools using those evaluation scores; evaluation and conclusion of this plan; and school board approval of the comprehensive plan.

A long-range facilities plan must be updated on an annual basis. Staff should be assigned responsibility to ensure that the areas scoring low on the building condition evaluation are included in the annual school plant budget for remediation.

What is the value to a school district to have a comprehensive long-range facilities plan completed?

For school system leaders, the benefits of having a long-range facilities plan are numerous. The areas where we found greatest value as superintendents were these:

  • Facilitating a bond referendum (for new schools, modernization or renovations);
  • Holding a plant levy to request funding from taxpayers;
  • Setting an annual budget for facility upgrade and improvements (using the building condition data);
  • Selecting a new school site (using capacities of existing schools that are full);
  • Setting school attendance areas (using capacities of schools);
  • Planning capital improvements;
  • Managing community use of school facilities (using site-size data);
  • Applying for community grant funding (using building evaluation scores and upgrade costs);
  • Developing educational specifications (for bidding of improvements);
  • Determining occupancy and enrollment of new students (using capacities of schools);
  • Deciding on acceptance of out-of-district students to existing schools (using capacities);
  • Interacting with city, county and governmental zoning departments (to add new subdivisions);
  • Accepting land donations from developers for future school sites (using capacities);
  • Receiving the school principals’ inventories of needed safety improvements (using building condition evaluation scores); and
  • Updating the district staff and community stakeholders on status of upgrades, improvements and proactive upkeep of school facilities.

(A copy of a long-range facility plan, which Bauscher developed for the Middleton School District 134 in Middleton, Idaho, and instruments, such as building capacity and building condition evaluation documents, are available with the magazine’s online edition. The long-range document served as the model plan for the Idaho State Department of Education from 2002 to 2010 and then for the Idaho Department of Building Safety, which took over collection of the plans, from 2011 to 2016.)

Geoff Thomas
Geoff Thomas
Evolving Needs

Long-range facility planning is a vital component of the school district’s overall strategic planning process. It can provide an accurate assessment of the institution’s physical environment and the potential for further development.

During Bauscher’s time as superintendent, the Middleton School District used the long-range facility planning process before conducting and passing each of the three bonds. The school board was confident that the district’s facility plans, which were developed prior to running each bond, would assist in passing the measures. They did, with the three bond referenda gathering 73 percent, 72 percent and 86 percent rates of approval. No bonds failed during Bauscher’s 15-year superintendency in Middleton.

A school district’s facilities’ needs evolve over time, making a detailed system of data crucial in understanding and meeting these demands. Protection and upkeep are an expectation of taxpaying patrons. Protection of these community assets are one of the main reasons that support for improvements are possible.

However, when facility bonds fail, it’s often due to the lack of a comprehensive facilities plan in the district. It can provide effective life-cycle modeling with clear financial budgeting, operating expenses and a focus on improving the facilities management efficiency. Tracking historical costs expended in each school, along with a solid plan for future development, will help alleviate inefficiencies that can have a negative rippling effect across the school district. n

Rich Bauscher, a former superintendent, is an associate professor of school administration at University of Idaho in Boise, Idaho. He is the co-author of Educational Facilities: Planning, Modernization and Management.

Geoff Thomas, a former superintendent, is an assistant professor of school leadership at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho.