Blockbuster Facilities Assessment Finally Unveiled!

Monday’s School Board meeting featured a presentation on the facilities assessment that was prepared for the District by Durrant Engineering.  This assessment was completed in the spring, and managed to capture the fancy of the press (see here and here), but the Board’s all-consuming budget deliberations at the time prompted a delay in the presentation until now.    

 The facility assessment didn’t just pop up and it didn’t have anything to do with our latest budget maneuvering.  The project has been in the works for a couple of years now.  I don’t know when it was formally initiated, but a request for proposals for the project was issued sometime in 2008.  After submitting its bid in October of 2008, Durrant was selected as the vendor for a district-wide facility assessment update in April, 2009. 

The company sent engineers to inspect the facilities at each of our schools, and they prepared such detailed assessments – window by window and urinal by urinal – and took so many pictures that their report is about a 20 gigabyte document.  The assessment focused on engineering systems and equipment, as well as the exterior of the buildings.  Specific problems or issues were graded from A to F, and code violations were identified.  The engineers also estimated the remaining life for the equipment or building component in question and also rated the problem on the basis of “criticality.”  High and low estimates were included for the projected cost to remedy each defect, with all the estimates initially appearing high because they incorporated the whole slew of steps that might be required to fix the identified problem, such as ripping into a tile wall in order to be able to replace a toilet.

As has been well publicized, the total cost to fix all the problems identified in the report could cost nearly $86 million.  No one is suggesting, however, that the district open up its checkbook and arrange for contractors to get to work immediately on $86 million of projects.  Instead, as the Durrant engineers explained, their recommended approach would be to establish a multi-year cycle for maintenance projects, determine how much could be available to spend on maintenance each year, and utilize the data base to identify and schedule priority projects over a series of years.  This seemed so eminently sensible that no Board members really had any significant concerns or questions about it.

The approach that the Durrant engineers described is what in fact the District plans. The administration intends to rely on the Durrant data base to develop a multi-year project plan, along with an estimate of the projected funds necessary to implement the plan each year.  The goal is for the administration to present this plan, along with projected sources of funding, to the Board in May or June of 2011.  It is not clear at this point whether implementation of the plan would require the District to go to referendum, and it seems as if we won’t know the answer to that question for at least another year.

Given the intimations in the media that the district had been derelict in neglecting maintenance, I was interested in asking the Durrant engineers, who have assessed a ton of public buildings, how they would compare the overall level of maintenance of the district’s buildings with other public buildings they have checked out.  The response was fairly reassuring.  The engineers stated that, like nearly all public buildings, the District’s schools had outstanding maintenance needs that in a perfect world of unlimited resources would already have been addressed.  However, they said the buildings had been cared for, the various systems worked, and that the buildings did not show unusual signs of neglect.  One of the engineers, who didn’t seem familiar with the concept of grade inflation, said he’d rate the physical state of the district’s schools as a solid C, or maybe C+.  Under the circumstances, that seemed like an acceptable grade.

And what, you ask, about tuck-pointing at East, which has been the pet topic of this blog so far?  As you’ll recall, concerns had been expressed that a nearly $2 million tuck-pointing project at East which had been identified as one of the needs that the 2005 maintenance referendum was intended to address, had never been completed.  Issues with the exterior of East are identified in the Durrant data base.  Adding together all the identified projects (masonry repair, soffit repair, deteriorated sealant, misaligned brick veneer, etc.), the total costs to repair projected by Durrant range from a low estimate of about $400,000 to a high estimate of about $600,000.  Not chump change by any means, but still considerably less than the nearly $2 million that had apparently been projected five years ago.

The perplexing issue for me is how this particular issue came to spin out of control in the media.   What was all the fuss about?  The perception was somehow created that the district had squandered the previous maintenance referendum money, that our buildings are falling down, that historic East High School was coming apart at the seams, and that some consultants had declared that we needed to spend $86 million on maintenance pronto.   None of these claims turn out to be quite what one would characterize as, you know, true.

While misinformation about our schools is unfortunately common, the problem with these particular memes is that they can worm themselves into the public consciousness and come back to haunt us if we do end up pursuing a maintenance referendum in a year or two.  We crusaders for truth and accuracy can attempt to rectify these misunderstandings, but the sad fact is that reading about the development of a facility assessment data base, absent any whiff of scandal, is just plain boring, as this post amply demonstrates.

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