25 Years: Creating a Long-Term Project Plan for Your District
By John Connolly, Bob Hughes, and John Lavelle
The biggest challenges school districts face related to large projects are communicating clearly, getting projects done within the allotted time frame, and handling shifting priorities. Some districts have developed an annual work session with their boards to determine the priorities of the district, while others have monthly subcommittee meetings that include board members, leadership, and community representatives. These meetings are great opportunities to avoid the common misconception of poor planning by communicating effectively.
Delays can cost money and cause problems if acquisitions or construction are not complete before the start of school and the best-laid plans can be disrupted as new priorities arise. Getting back on track by revisiting what was previously decided can be challenging, which is why having a long-range plan can assist when it comes to the communication, timing, and funding of projects while providing focus during changes in leadership and the emergence of new priorities.
Keep the Board on Board
CHSD 230, based in Orland Park, has an annual meeting involving the school board, community, and district leadership. The purpose of this meeting is to have a broad discussion about priorities. They call this the Successful Students Successful Schools or S4 plan, which establishes broad goals and action steps. Along with goals related to student learning and curriculum strategies, we discuss others related to providing the appropriate resources to meet the needs of students. As part of this process, District 230 developed the idea of long-range planning based on the realization that the usual three-to-five-year plan was not enough.
To avoid surprises that could disrupt plans related to other goals, we took a look at the life expectancy of major assets such as roofs and HVAC equipment over an extended period. We settled on a timeframe of 25 years and planning began to take shape.
After looking at our district’s major cost centers, the district decided that technology should be included with buildings and grounds expenditures. As this plan has been shared and discussed at various meetings, we have found it to be a great means of communicating and aligning the district’s spending with the overall district planning. While everyone understands work needs to be done within the district, it can come as a shock when the price tag is high. Having this long-range plan that takes into account price escalation helps with accepting the need to move forward and complete large, costly projects.
Create Your Financial Plan
It’s not enough to know what needs to be done. Two other big questions are, “Do we have enough money?” and “When will we have time to get this done?”
Many Illinois districts have a Debt Service Extension Base (DSEB). When preparing to issue debt, it is often necessary to update your district’s credit rating. Besides understanding your district’s major sources of revenue and the condition of the local economy, rating agencies are also interested in financial planning. The long-range plan helps in reviewing a plan and issuing debt to coincide with the projects.
It is easy to put off much-needed upkeep and continue deferring maintenance until the only way to complete these projects is with the passing of a referendum. The public is not tolerant of poor and short-sighted planning, especially when you have had the capacity to borrow without referendum. This dedicated source of funding makes it easy to work backward from the summer dates you want the project completed by, to when you need to go to bid. Even if you do not have a DSEB, it is possible to use a small consistent annual surplus to provide the funds needed to extend debt.
Depending on the project it might also be possible, through future cost avoidance and increased energy efficiency, to justify getting the work done. These types of projects may also be eligible for grant funding and it is helpful to have identified and planned for this “shovel ready” work as new funding opportunities become available. Including conservative cost estimates with an escalation rate can serve to show the cost of deferring work. With this long term plan in place, it is easy to see if work comes in under budget it might be possible to pull future work into an earlier year.
Prepare to be Flexible
When large expenditures are put off, and the life expectancy of assets is not known, unexpected repairs can affect the district’s ability to carry out important initiatives related to student learning. More disruption can occur when the failure impacts the building’s temperature during months of student attendance. It can always be argued, “Why fix it if it’s not broke?” but when the impact of a breakdown disrupts your primary mission it can end up costing more and impacting learning. This is not to say that flexibility cannot be built into the plan, but regular maintenance and care of equipment are still necessary to prolong the life expectancy of major equipment. All major building equipment should have a preventative maintenance program. When items are well-maintained they are more likely to exceed their anticipated life cycle, which gives you more flexibility in your long-term plan.
School districts have major expenses coming from the area of technology, which is why District 230 chose to include these in our long-term planning. While most major technology has a five-year refresh cycle, some systems, such as phone or intercom systems, are typically on a 10-year cycle. Knowing when a refresh should occur can help a district determine the best year to replace or extend equipment based on the need for other large expenditures. Technology also carries with it the issue of the total cost of ownership. It is critical that these are considered before adding major technology initiatives.
Having a 25-year plan demonstrates you have done prudent planning as it relates to major expenses. Less than a year after District 230 developed a 25-year plan, new and pressing priorities were identified that pushed everything forward one year. With these types of occurrences in mind, a long-range plan needs to be a living document that can adjust to a changing landscape. For example, with the increased violence at schools, new goals have emerged related to security. The coronavirus pandemic, of course, changed the landscape for many school districts. Other examples of unanticipated circumstances that might change the order things are completed are:
- New funding opportunities
- State mandates
- An enrollment surge due to the closing of an area private school
Again, these changes in priority only support the practice of the long-range plan. Without this document, any change in priorities can cause the original work to fall off the radar and be forgotten.
A Mechanism for Continuous Improvement
Unexpected costs can make goals impossible to meet. Having a 25-year budget eliminates surprises. By having a plan that is a living document and is reviewed multiple times per year, we can meet goals and be flexible in meeting shifting priorities while also being realistic about timeframes. Leveraging the ability to borrow to meet long-term goals by using small surpluses, or DSEB, can allow a district to have the funds available to meet the most pressing goals while meeting board and district goals for continuous improvement. Cooperation between the departments of Finance, Facilities, and Technology is a major part of the success of long-range planning. This documentation exercise serves as a great communication strategy and provides a constant backbone of organization as boards and leadership turn over.