How to Avoid School Construction Mistakes

By Kelley D. Carey

It was a $25 million mistake. A middle school was being built on the site of a former high school, but the district did not base its construction plan on current and future enrollment patterns.

When the school was half finished, the district asked me to plan and map the attendance zone. Enrollment was declining; growth was moving to the suburbs. Given all the surrounding schools’ capacities and the geography, the school could only be half filled and would decline in enrollment.

Naturally, the superintendent and board were not pleased with my report. But the error could have been prevented.

In my experience, school districts make little to no effort to properly project future enrollment when planning future construction and redistricting efforts. Superintendents and board members often think they know where the next schools should go and they want just enough information to validate those opinions. These assumptions often are wrong, however.

Architects, in some cases, help you decide where a school site should be, but for them, the big money is in designing schools, which can conflict with location and needs decisions.

One school is part of a fabric, impacting attendance and facilities needs directly and indirectly across the whole district. Comprehensive planning for programs, demographics, and facilities must cover that whole, recognize students’ current locations, and look at projected enrollment five years from now. However, this rarely occurs.

In short, millions of dollars are spent on buildings after hundreds of dollars are spent on planning. But fortunately, asking the right questions and getting a few simple answers now can help you avoid such errors in the future.

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