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School Officials Study Facility Costs

What's a small, rural district to do when it suddenly becomes a magnet for developers, it's just spent all its bond money, and the state forbids it to ask the developers to help pay for new schools?

Arizona's Higley school district, just south of Phoenix, is facing such a dilemma. And here is what it does: The district copes with the new growth by using public and private partnerships, simple school designs, and a little arm- twisting.

Superintendent Larry C. Likes outlined his strategies at the 79th annual conference of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, held here Oct. 19-23.

The session, "Stretching Design With Shrinking Dollars," summed up a topic on the minds of many.

The conference and trade show attracted about 1,250 architects, district facility planners, and school officials, including delegations from Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

Mr. Likes' district, which served an agricultural community with one 360-student elementary school until 2000, is in the midst of development that will add about 23,000 homes and 12,000 students within 10 years. But Arizona law prohibits local governments from requiring developers to pay "impact fees" to help build new schools to accommodate increasing populations.

Rather than ask residents for more bond money, the 3,200-student Higley district has managed the growth by partnering with local government agencies and private groups to build new schools that serve as multiuse facilities. For instance, the county government helped pay for an aquatic center at the high school that is also used by the community.

Mr. Likes and the district's architect, Brett A. Hobza of the DLR Group in Phoenix, also offered tips on cutting construction costs:

• Don't duplicate services. For instance, rather than build a costly vocational education wing at a new high school, the Higley district assigned students to an existing academy.

• Plan for the future, as retrofitting can be costly.

• Don't compromise on materials, especially hardware, roofing, and heating and cooling systems.

• Start with a simple design and use repetitive building forms, adding extras as the budget allows.

• Minimize site development.

Local officials also have cajoled developers to chip in for land or money for the new schools. The local zoning board, Mr. Likes said, routinely asks developers "if they've reached an agreement with the school district."

"If they say no, you'd be surprised at how many street signs are the wrong size and how many curbs are in the wrong place," Mr. Likes quipped, in a reference to the leverage local authorities can exercise.

Fulton County, Ga., is facing unprecedented growth. Enrollment in its school system has climbed by about 18,000 students, to 72,000, since 1995.

But the district in suburban Atlanta has a new crystal ball when it comes to growth.

Two Fulton County school officials demonstrated a new computer program that is helping them predict growth patterns and locate new schools. The district has built two or more schools each year in recent years.

The Geographic Information System Software—the same system used in the automotive On Star mapping systems—analyzes data from student-enrollment records, attendance records, new building developments, and the U.S. Census. The software even marks where students live on street maps.

Although it's a lot of work to maintain, the software has alerted the district to older areas that are being redeveloped, the officials said, and predicted enrollment dips in others.

Still, computers can't do everything, cautioned Patrick Burke, the district's director of planning, who made the presentation along with Michael Vanairsdale, an assistant superintendent. Districts must keep a close watch on rezoning and talk to developers to find out their plans.

"We make 200 to 300 phone calls a year," Mr. Burke said.

In addition, his district has used the computer-generated data to buy land in areas where development is likely, before prices climb.

—Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 22, Issue 9, Page 12

Published in Print: October 30, 2002, as Reporter's Notebook
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