Benefits to a Capital Improvement Plan for Schools

Article | 11.04.2020

What do we need? When do we need it? What will it cost? How will it be paid for? A Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) answers those questions. It contains all the capital projects, equipment purchases, and significant improvements with an associated completion schedule and financing plan. The plan provides a working blueprint for sustaining and improving the district’s infrastructure. Second, only to the human assets of students, faculty, and staff, maintaining and improving buildings and equipment is a priority of every school district.

While most school districts do have a CIP, too often, it sits on a shelf to be retrieved, if only for a cursory review, at budget time. A well-crafted CIP is an asset management tool. It coordinates strategic planning, financial capacity, and physical development.

If your district is like most, needs and wants exceed funds. That calls for smart choices. This is where a CIP comes into play. In this article, we are presenting the best practices to develop a CIP through seven essential steps.

Step 1: Organize

This obvious first step sounds simple. In reality, there can be more to it. If the CIP is primarily to address those needs to keep facilities functioning in a “warm, safe, and dry” condition, having a committee comprised of the business manager, facility director, superintendent, and representatives of the Board of Education is appropriate.

If the CIP includes other projects to improve the teaching and learning environment, such as the reconfiguration of existing spaces, a building addition, or even a new building having an expanded committee is essential. Including teachers, staff, parents, community leaders, and even students make the group a Facility Planning Committee (FPC). Often the FPC is charged with updating or creating the Master Facility Plan, which feeds projects into the CIP. Having a broad cross-section of persons involved when the CIP will include more than maintaining facilities paves the way for future actions, especially if a bond vote is part of the financing plan.

Step 2: Capital Improvement Workshop

Meeting with those who know and can document past capital improvements is essential in developing a CIP. The scope, schedule, and budget of previous upgrades help plan and prioritize future needs. Listing when a roof was replaced or what areas of carpet were restored are examples of past capital improvements that need to be captured.

Step 3: Assess Existing Assets

Too often, a walk-through of district facilities to identify needs is the basis for a CIP. Long-term conditions are estimated without a solid foundation of what and when action needs to be taken to keep the buildings warm, safe, and dry. What is required is a look-ahead for at least ten years to identify long-term needs, each tied to accepted industry standards. The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) provides life-cycle estimates for building and site components. RSMeans is a recognized source of construction cost estimates indexed for the geographic region and inflation. Applying that information to assessing all components by architects and engineers results in a long-term look ahead at probable costs for maintaining facilities.

Step 4: Align with Program Needs

Comparing existing spaces and amenities with what ideally would be provided yields a list of opportunities and challenges. Perhaps the curriculum being delivered calls for STEM labs where none currently exists. A comparison between existing and desired spaces will identify ways to meet that need either by repurposing underutilized space or potentially adding square footage to a building.

Conducting this step with an adequately formed committee, as detailed in Step 1, will result in a listing of project needs in addition to those identified in the previous step to keep the facility in a warm, safe, and dry condition. Together, Steps 3 & 4 provide a holistic view of the needs of the district.

Step 5: Prioritize Projects

A CIP represents a multi-year planning period. Understanding the “mission-criticality” for each component is essential. Having a boiler go down in January means no classes at that school. Needing to replace ceiling tiles is less mission-critical than no heat. Prioritization of projects year-by-year throughout the planning period provides an accurate picture of annual costs.

Step 6: Financing Plan

Planning for financing the needs is a final piece of the puzzle. Are projects going to be funded through a Capital Improvement Fund? Is a bond issue required? Will a sinking fund yield adequate dollars? Are actions needed separately or in a combination? The financing plan addresses these questions.

Step 7: Adopt the CIP

The final step is for the School Board to review, understand, and adopt the CIP. The annual budget needs to cover operational and CIP costs. The Board is charged with taking that action. Having the best possible information, developed through a transparent process, will result in broad-based support for a plan that provides maintenance and improvement to the students’ teaching and learning environment.

You have planned, developed, and adopted a CIP. The work doesn’t end there. There are specific actions to ensure the viability and support of the CIP.

  • Store and provide access to the CIP information: Have both the CIP and Master Facility Plan stored where they are readily accessible.
  • Refresh your CIP every one to three years. Review your capital improvement plan and strategic plan annually (or every few years, at most) to keep it accurate and up to date. For example, in a five-year CIP, you may have overspent on some capital improvements during the second year. You’ll need to adjust your CIP accordingly for the following year while ensuring any changes retain alignment with the strategic plan and annual budget.
  • Update the CIP Frequently. The plan may cover a five to ten-year period. Don’t wait until the last year to review the CIP and Master Facility plans. Do a review annually or every two to three years to keep the information accurate and up to date. Circumstances may have resulted in over or under spending in a budget cycle. Refresh the data to reflect the impact accurately.
  • Manage the Projects. Monitor the work and budget expenditures closely. It is easy to lose control unless you stay on top of it.
  • Make the Process Transparent. Share information with the Board at their public meetings. Consider the use of an online dashboard on the district website to share information and share progress. The result will be invaluable in building trust and support within the community.