School buildings aren’t getting any younger, and replacing them is costly. But putting off the work will only make the problems worse—and more expensive to solve.
In Colorado’s Littleton district, the newest of its roughly two dozen school buildings was erected in 1989. The oldest dates back four decades before that. By 2018, the average age of the district’s facilities was 58 years old.
Colorado is one of roughly a dozen states that offers no aid for school districts to repair their buildings. So let’s imagine that the Littleton district can’t secure taxpayer support for bonds to replace its aging infrastructure. By 2027, the average age of the district’s buildings would creep up to 67. By 2047, it would be 87.
If the district instead managed to find the money for one school replacement per decade, that would bring the average building age to 79 by 2047. Replacing a building every five years? The 2047 average drops to 71.
The faster the replacement schedule, the younger the district’s buildings will be on average. If, by some miracle, the district could replace a building every year, that 2047 average would be just 16 years old.
District administrators shared these numbers during a recent panel discussion at the annual conference for the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) International in Portland, Ore. They illustrate the importance of long-term planning to prevent buildings from falling into disrepair, as so many across the United States already have.
Years ago, a Littleton school board member with a background in technology floated the idea of crafting a 50-year plan for the district’s buildings.
“When are we going to stop throwing good money after bad?” Terry Davis, the district’s chief financial officer, recalled the board member saying.
That plan ended up consisting of a scheduled $298 million bond referendum on the ballot every 10 years. The first one, coupled with an increase in property taxes for local residents, passed in 2018. The next one will appear before voters in 2028.
This approach will hardly modernize the district’s buildings overnight. The projected average age for the district’s facilities will hover in the low 60s for the next few decades.
And it’s an uphill battle for many reasons. Districts should take note of what Littleton has accomplished and the challenges it’s faced.
Here are a few tips from Littleton administrators on how to make this process work.
Don’t disregard taxpayers who don’t have children in school.
In recent years, the Littleton district has seen its enrollment decline and its population of senior citizens without young children increase. Many districts struggle to convince taxpayers without children to actively support financing for local public schools.
Littleton administrators got around this problem by going directly to the source. The district assembled a Citizens Long Range Planning Committee compromised of senior volunteers from the community. The district keeps the committee abreast of its plan and encourages members to spread the word to neighbors about the needs of the schools.
Find ways to build community confidence.
Three years before the bond election, administrators commissioned a demographic study to understand the area’s birth rates and a transportation study to determine safe and appropriate routes for buses. It also held meetings with investment bankers to discuss refinancing existing bonds.
That work can save the district money, but it also sends a powerful message to residents: “You’re showing taxpayers that you really care about the debt and what they’re having to pay,” Davis said.
Strategically educate the school board.
Littleton administrators examine the calendar a year in advance to determine when they’re going to highlight the district’s fiscal challenges to board members who might otherwise not understand them. They also proactively update the board when the state legislature takes action that affects the district’s finances.
School principals can also be persuasive. They understand better than anyone the value of funding increases, and they can communicate early and often to the school board and superintendent if they know what they’re asking for.
Don’t assume voters will care.
The superintendent and school board members went on two different “road shows” visiting school communities in the district and stumping for the bond referendum. The first came eight months before the election, and the second was right after the board of education voted to put the referendum on the ballot.
Waiting too long for this advocacy can backfire, though. In Colorado, district employees are prohibited from discussing anything other than the facts of the referendum once the item has appeared on the ballot.
Seek outside help.
The Littleton district hires a firm to manage construction projects, secure contractors, and find efficiencies where possible. It can be expensive, but Davis said the end justifies the means.
“If the fee was $2 million, they’re hoping to bring you $4 million in cost savings that I would challenge your team doesn’t have the resources to find that,” Davis said.