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Despite Slump, School Work Making the Grade

But local districts and universities still face challenges

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The sagging economy has kept down the number of education-related design and construction projects, but many school districts, colleges and universities facing critical needs are forging ahead with major projects.

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The New York City Dept. of Education’s 2010-14 capital plan, for example, calls for investing a total of more than $11 billion in new schools, school renovation projects and other work by mid-2014, says a department spokesman, Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld.

Key elements of the plan include $4.1 billion to provide more than 30,000 new student seats in a total of 56 buildings; $2.1 billion to improve the exteriors and interiors of existing buildings; and $2.3 billion for building-code compliance projects and other mandated work.

Zarin-Rosenfeld says the volume of work scheduled in the five-year plan is off slightly from previous years, reflecting both the impact of the economic downturn on city and state tax revenue and the fact that so much of New York’s needed school work already has been completed. “Still, there’s more to do,” he says.

The near-collapse of the homebuilding markets in Florida, the Southwest and some other areas in the United States has led to sharp declines in the building of new elementary, middle and high schools in those areas. Meanwhile, other school districts have scaled back their plans due to flat or declining revenue.

Some districts, however, are moving forward with badly needed projects, often taking advantage of strong competition among contractors—and lower bids—in the process. Near Baton Rouge, La., the Zachary Community School Board has asked voters to consider a $40-million construction bond issue that, if approved on Nov. 2, would provide funding for a new elementary school, the addition of 30 classrooms to an existing elementary school and the conversion of yet another elementary school into a kindergarten-only facility, among other things.

Gordon Robertson, the district’s business manager, says school officials really have no choice but to seek new funds. “We have outgrown our existing facilities,” he says. “[The new projects] will enable us to eliminate the need for temporary classrooms.”

Zachary’s proposed bond issue is a relatively easy sell because passage would not result in a tax increase. However, getting voter approval for multimillion-dollar school bond issues that would raise taxes in tough economic times can be problematic.

In August, voters in the Guthrie School District in Oklahoma rejected by more than a three-to-one margin a proposed $89.8-million bond issue that would have raised local taxes by 24%. The bonds would have been used to build a new high school, convert the existing high school to a junior high and turn the existing junior high into civic space.

In Texas, voters in Austin will consider $149.5 million in proposed school bonds, including $50 million to build a new elementary school and renovate several other elementary schools, $20.5 million to build a student fitness center and a swim center, and $72 million for technological and other upgrades.

Colleges and universities, buoyed by continued growth and private donations, appear to be ramping up their design and construction activity after what, for most, was a slow 2009.

Clemson University in South Carolina is relying on a mix of private funds and federal stimulus money to finance a $31-million expansion and renovation of Lee Hall, the home of Clemson’s design, building and visual arts departments, says university spokesman John Gouch.

“We also have started construction of a new Academic Success Center,” the programs of which, Gouch says, “will provide academic support, coaching and counseling to students to improve student retention and … graduation rates.” The center is expected to cost about $14 million.

Clemson and other state-supported colleges and universities in South Carolina face financial challenges, however. At the suggestion of Gov. Mark Sanford (R), the State Budget and Control Board in September approved a moratorium on new capital projects at such schools if they fail to keep their annual tuition increases to 7% or less, says Sanford spokesman Benjamin Cox.

Clemson’s Gouch says the university initially had raised its 2010-11 tuition by 7.5%, but in October decided to roll back the increase to 7% so the school would not need to implement a building moratorium. The Lee Hall expansion and Academic Success Building are proceeding as planned, he says, adding it is “hard to say” if the combination of declining state financial support and the new cap on tuition hikes will slow the pace of future projects.

Private colleges and universities face challenges of their own. The University of Notre Dame is taking a conservative approach, starting projects only when all the funding for them is lined up, says Doug Marsh, the South Bend, Ind., university’s architect and associate vice president, Office of Business Operations. Notre Dame has two major projects under way. The larger one, which is “on a fast track” and scheduled for completion next fall, is the $52.9-million Compton Family Center; the 206,000-sq-ft facility will house two hockey rinks, one for the school’s team and 5,000 spectators and the other for club sports, the South Bend community and 300 spectators. The second is Carole Sandner Hall, which will serve as the new, $11.6-million home of the Alliance for Catholic Education.

“We’re blessed to be weathering the storm as well as we have,” says Marsh, adding that many colleges and universities have needed to cancel or delay projects over the past two years. “And it’s been a fortuitous time. We’re enjoying the benefits of a lot of competition.” Notre Dame also has a bevy of projects in the fund-raising stage, Marsh says.

 

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