'Baby Boomlet' Brings Boom In School-Construction Projects
Spending on school construction reached an all-time high of some $10 billion last year and is expected to remain at elevated levels throughout the decade, as school districts contend with rising student enrollments and deteriorating buildings.
A "baby boomlet" whose oldest members are now in the middle grades has forced many districts to augment, renovate, or replace cramped or long-neglected facilities, according to industry analysts interviewed this month.
The demand for education-related construction is likely to remain strong, they said, due to steady increases in the birth rate, changes in classroom design, and political pressures to build new schools.
"This is the biggest school-construction boom since the 1950's," said Sheryl B. Maibach, marketing manager for education for the Barton Malow Company of Southfield, Mich., a contracting firm working in 22 states.
"There has been such a huge influx in the elementary schools," she said, "that districts have just panicked."
With seven consecutive years of growth, education construction--which totals about $15 billion for precollegiate and higher education--has emerged as one of the strongest sectors of the construction industry. The market is rivaled only by health-care-related construction, according to recently released industry statistics.
The need for school construction is so great, educators and industry experts said, that demand threatens to drive up construction costs in some states. The situation is also spurring many districts to rethink their methods of designing and building schools in order to erect them more quickly.
And, although the market's rate of growth slowed last year as the recession dampened some school-construction plans, spending by the education sector is unlikely to peak for at least two more years, analysts said.
Moreover, some industry observers and experts on education finance are predicting a second wave of school construction, especially in poorer areas, as courts and state legislatures mandate and fund new construction in response to equity concerns. (See related story below.)
The F.W. Dodge Group of McGraw-Hill Inc., which collects construction statistics and forecasts industry trends, estimated total construction expenditures at all levels of public and private education at $15.3 billion in 1990, a 6 percent increase over the year before.
Elementary- and secondary-school construction showed the largest increase within the education market, rising 11 percent, to a total of $10.7 billion, a spokesman for F.W. Dodge said.
Paul Abramson, who as editorial director of American School & University magazine conducts an annual survey of construction by public school districts and both public and private colleges and universities, estimated that $14.9 billion in projects were completed by those segments of the market last year. That represented an increase of more than 36 percent over 1987 levels.
Mr. Abramson, who is president of the educational consulting firm Stanton Leggett & Associates of Larchmont, N.Y., put local public-school construction levels last year at $9.67 billion--a jump of more than 45 percent since 1987. Last year's figure included $4.1 billion in new buildings, $3.1 billion in additions, and $2.5 billion in modernizations. Private schools were not surveyed.
"The education market has been very cyclical," observed Ms. Maibach of the Barton Malow Company. "It was strong in the early 1970's, then it was dead until about 1987, and it has been very strong since then."
Although more schools were built during peak years of the "baby boom" in the 1950's and 1960's than during the current surge, today's construction boom exceeds previous records for dollars spent. While inflation accounts for part of the increase, the facilities now being built tend to cost more in real dollars as a result of having more space and amenities per student, the experts interviewed for this story noted.
More than a quarter of public-school construction last year took place in the Southeast, where the value of such construction rose by 12 percent over 1989, to $2.95 billion. Most of the growth in that region, the strongest in the nation for several years, was concentrated in Florida, the Carolinas, and Georgia, Mr. Abramson said.
California also experienced strong growth in its school-construction market, while market levels dropped slightly in New York and New Jersey, according to the American School & University survey.
Driving much of the current growth in school construction, industry analysts said, is a rise in student population called the "baby boomlet," because most of the children are the offspring of the baby boomers of the 1950's and 1960's.
The product of steady increases in the birth rate since 1977, the baby boomlet includes youngsters now in the 8th grade and extends through their younger siblings to children born this year, according to U.S. Education Department statistics. Demographers say its impact will be felt in high schools as early as this fall.
In 1973, four years before the latest boom began, the number of births in the United States was only 3.1 million, causing public-school enrollment to bottom out at 39 million in 1984. In 1990, by contrast, some 4.1 million babies were born, the highest number since 1962, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools has risen to about 41 million, and is projected to climb an additional 8.6 percent during this decade, to a total of about 44.3 million in 1999, according to the Education Department.
Most of the enrollment boom in this decade is projected to take place in the South and the West, with increases of 20 percent in Florida, 19 percent in Georgia, 16 percent in California, and 11 percent in Texas.
Duwayne Brooks, assistant superintendent for school-facilities planning for the California Department of Education, said his state needs to spend $2.5 billion on facilities each year "just to keep even" with an annual K-12 enrollment growth estimated at 230,000 pupils.
"At this point, the state school-building-aid program is $6 billion behind the requests," Mr. Brooks said. "We can't build permanent classrooms fast enough to meet the increase in student population, so we are building portables."
H. James Schroeer, deputy commissioner for educational facilities for the Florida Department of Education, said his state's student population has been growing by 4 percent to 5 percent a year in recent years, due to rising birth rates and an influx of new residents from other states and abroad.
In the Gwinnett County, Ga., district outside Atlanta, officials are in the process of building eight new schools to accommodate an enrollment that has been growing by about 3,500 students, or 4 percent, a year, said James Steele, assistant superintendent for buildings, grounds, and operations. The district's enrollment is projected to double by the end of the decade, he said.
Adding to the demand for new school construction is the fact that most "baby boomlet" children are entering schools that were built for their parents' generation and now need to be renovated or replaced.
A 1989 report by the Education Writers Association noted that 61 percent of the buildings then in use were constructed during the 1950's and 1960's, which it described as "generally a period of rapid and cheap construction."
The report, based on surveys of more than half the states, found that 3 percent of the nation's schools were structurally unsound and more than a quarter were overcrowded, obsolete, or in need of major repairs. The education infrastructure needed a total of $84 billion in new construction or "retrofitting" for high-technology equipment, it concluded, and $41 billion in maintenance and repairs. (See Education Week, April 12, 1989.)
More recently, the Ohio Department of Education undertook one of the most extensive state surveys yet of school-construction needs and, in a report last fall, called for $10.2 billion in construction to bring schools in the Buckeye State into compliance with state codes. The total would include $5.3 billion in repairs, $1.7 billion in additions, and $3.2 billion in new construction.
The study found at least three-quarters of Ohio schools in need of replacement or repairs when inspected for heating; plumbing and fixtures; ventilation and air conditioning; windows; general finishes; emergency lighting; handicapped access; and safety-code systems.
More than 68 percent of schools in the state still need asbestos removal, the report said, and at least 60 percent need replacements or repairs of roofing, interior lighting, fire-alarm systems, site conditions, or exterior doors.
Several school-construction experts said many schools are still feeling the effects of a lack of maintenance during the 1970's and early 1980's, when a weakened economy strapped budgets and a decline in enrollment left the future of some schools uncertain.
"A lot of the old buildings needed maintenance 10 or 20 years ago, but people were not interested in spending money on school buildings when they were reading about schools closing," said C. William Brubaker, vice chairman of Perkins & Will Architects in Chicago and past president of the Council of Educational Facility Planners.
In New York City, said Charles E. Williams, president of the school-construction authority there, "we are into schools that are 50 or 60 years old, and we are doing the first modernization to those buildings that has ever taken place."
The creation of the New York City School Construction Authority represents one of several efforts recently undertaken to complete school-construction projects more quickly and inexpensively in an effort to meet the high demand.
An independent, public-benefit corporation established by the state legislature to address long-delayed construction projects in the nation's largest school district, the agency employs 725 people with an annual administrative budget of $30 million and a five-year construction budget of $4.3 billion.
Since going into full-scale operation in 1989, the authority has tripled New York City's school-construction output and has cut the average length of time needed to build a new school from five years to two, Mr. Williams said.
"The name of the game here is to cause the whole process to move very fast," he said.
According to Mr. Williams, agency-employed engineers provide oversight that keeps contractors from stretching out projects, while an inspector general helps deter corruption in the multibillion-dollar effort.
Project managers employ a process the industry calls "fast-tracking," which allows bids to be taken and work to begin on one part of a building while other parts still are being designed.
Although the New York City authority is unique in its size and some of its efforts, the concept of fast-tracking is growing in popularity among school districts nationwide.
Raymond O. Massey Jr., assistant superintendent for facilities for the Wake County schools in Raleigh, N.C., which is in the midst of a $200-million construction program, said his district uses fast-tracking to start on site preparation while schools are being designed.
But the district has ceased using fast-tracking in the construction of schools themselves, Mr. Massey said, because it usually requires awarding more contracts and "the administrative costs and hassles are increased significantly."
Mr. Steele of the Gwinnett County, Ga., schools said his district does not use fast-tracking at all, because "we don't think it's worth the headaches that come with it."
"It is a litigious community in construction today," Mr. Steele said, "and the [district] would be right in the middle of that litigation if we tried to do fast-track."
Also growing in popularity, usually in conjunction with fast-tracking, is the use of "construction management," a process usually described as avoiding the need to engage general contractors.
Under traditional practice, general contractors submit bids for the entire, fully designed project and, once hired, subcontract each component of the work to prime contractors. In contrast, construction managers are hired by school boards to oversee projects, with the districts contracting directly with prime contractors.
An effective construction manager, industry experts said, can oversee fast-tracking, keep districts from being cheated on work, and speed the work of prime contractors, thus saving time and money.
Ms. Maibach, the Barton Malow analyst, said a recent three-state study commissioned by her firm found that 52 percent of Michigan districts with construction under way were using construction management, as were 50 percent of such Wisconsin districts and 18 percent of those in Ohio.
Dennis A. McCreary, who oversees construction for the Plano (Tex.) Independent School District, near Dallas, said his district is using an in-house construction manager for several renovation projects this summer. The advantage, he said, is that "this allows us to be real flexible," making changes much easier than they would be if a general contractor were overseeing the work.
Tony J. Wall, executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, based in Columbus, Ohio, cited other methods of reducing the time needed to complete jobs.
For example, he said, Florida, Texas, and a handful of other states have begun expediting the construction process by allowing for lease-purchasing agreements that enable districts to lease buildings and buy them later. That approach puts construction in the hands of developers, who often can erect buildings in less time and at lower cost than school districts can.
Another shortcut, strongly endorsed by Mr. Wall, is a team-oriented approach that encourages the various players in a construction project to work closely together.
Such a philosophy is followed in Gwinnett County, Mr. Steele of the Georgia district said. For each school-construction project, he said, the architects, general contractor, prime contractors, and district officials involved are called together on a regular basis--usually once every week or two--to coordinate their work. That ensures that the various elements of the project are being done on time and, where possible, at the same time, Mr. Steele said.
"All we are doing is putting pieces of the puzzle together," he said. "Lack of communication is a big problem in construction today. It is probably the biggest problem that we see."
When subjected to intense pressure to build schools quickly and inexpensively, many districts fall back on prototyped designs.
Peter Samton of Gruzen, Samton, Steinglass, an architecture, planning, and interior-design firm in New York City, said he has been designing several projects in which a prototypical rectangular classroom, with "bulges" for computer areas and special-needs students, "becomes literally the building block for the school."
"By repeating it, we can expedite the process, and saving time saves money," Mr. Samton said, adding that additional money is saved when the design is used for several schools and identical materials are used.
Edmond M. Maurice, director of project management for the Broward County, Fla., school board, which has undertaken $1 billion in renovations, expansions, and new construction, said that "typically we are using prototypes" to cut the design process in half and save about 10 percent in costs per school.
"On the elementary level," Mr. Maurice said, "we have prototypes that address urban-versus-rural distinctions, site-size restrictions, and single-story-versus-multi-story needs."
"Contractors become familiar with the requirements and are able to buy materials in advance," he said. "You also are able to ferret out your problems in a prototype, because you are able to correct them before you build the next one, hopefully."
To stretch their construction dollars, many districts also are asking that schools be designed to operate year round--by including such features as air conditioning--or to double as community centers.
Mr. Brooks of the California education department said legislation that took effect in his state in January gives top priority for state school-construction funds to buildings designed to operate year round.
Although the pressing need for new buildings has enabled the education-construction market to weather the current recession, hard times have prompted some school districts to temporarily postpone construction projects. Several industry observers, including Mr. Abramson of American School & University and analysts at the F.W. Dodge Group, predicted slower rates of growth in the market for the next several years.
The 6 percent rise in the overall education-construction market between 1989 and 1990 was down significantly from previous increases of 12.8 percent between 1988 and 1989 and 14.7 percent between 1987 and 1988, Mr. Abramson noted.
Moreover, he said, precollegiate- and higher-education officials have cut back slightly in their projections of the dollar value of construction projects they plan to complete over the next three years. When surveyed in 1990, they predicted $51.1 billion in new projects over three years, compared with three-year projections of $51.6 billion the year before.
Mr. Abramson said the economic downturn has had the most impact on school modernizations, which are easier to postpone than new construction and repair projects.
Modernization projects this year accounted for about 25 percent of all school-construction dollars spent. But Mr. Abramson projects, based on his surveys, that only about 22 percent of school-construction funds will be spent on modernization over the next three years.
Most of the slowdown in school construction, Mr. Abramson said, has been centered in the economically hard-hit states of New York and New Jersey and in New England.
In Massachusetts, "there still are a lot of people proposing new schools," according to Diane Price, acting director of school-facilities services for the state department of education. But, she added, "that is a lot of debt to undertake in unsure economic times."
"A number of town meetings are beginning to reject the local authorization to bond these projects," she noted.
In the short term, predicted Mr. Abramson, Ms. Maibach, and several other analysts, the recession may prompt voters in other regions to begin turning down tax levies.
But "roofs last for [only] 25 years, so the need is going to be there," Mr. Abramson said. "If the economy picks up at all, there is still a pent-up demand to fix up existing buildings."
"The population is more important than the economy" in driving the school-construction market, Ms. Maibach added.
"There is not a parent in the world who wants their child in a class of 35 or 38," she explained. "They react very quickly, and that is what forces the school board to act."
Even where the student population is not increasing and schools are in good physical shape, the education-reform movement has put districts under pressure to provide more space per student than they have before, school-design experts said.
"In 1970, we were providing 62 square feet per student in elementary schools and 120 for a high-school student," Mr. Abramson said. "In 1990, we were looking at 96 square feet per student in elementary schools and 160 in high schools."
He added that several dozen schools he had dealt with recently "were being enlarged in order to house fewer students than were in them originally."
Mr. Brubaker of Perkins & Will expressed a similar view, noting that today's high-school sites "are often 40 or 50 acres," about double what was once typical.
"The public expects more," he said.
Vol. 10, Issue 26, Page 1, 12-13Published in Print: March 20, 1991, as 'Baby Boomlet' Brings Boom In School-Construction Projects