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Stage 4: The Facility Process

Stage 4: The Charter School Facility Process


Few things are more daunting than the facilities process of your charter school journey. It is such a difficult undertaking that some charter schools never get their own facility, preferring to share a cheap space with another organization (church, municipal building, private club, etc.) or even rent unused space from the local District (if the local District is charter-friendly enough to allow that). However, even if your school is a gypsy for the first few years, a frugal, well-managed budget and an aggressive fund-raising campaign can eventually yield enough capital to build a new facility on a parcel of land or convert an existing building into a beautiful school. In the following sections we will use material collected from the National Charter School Resource Center to help you navigate the facilities process.

First off, it’s best if the facilities process begins in Stage 1 (aka, “Predevelopment”). Establish an in-house planning team to come up with a budget and a general plan of action before submitting a request for proposal (RFP) for developers or construction companies to contact you about offering their services. If you already have a connection in the development or construction world, that’s great, but still have your in-house planning team formulate a strategy before approaching them.

In your RFP, make sure to include comprehensive information that includes the correct scopes of work. Solicit organizations with a strong history of relevant work experience (don’t hire someone who specializes in hospitals), and make sure to include a fee template that will ensure “apples-to-apples” scopes of work. You should find a company you trust, but also verify the decision with peer review and code consultation.

The planning team should include a few important participants, who will remain throughout the project. Note that some will arrive after others, and Predevelopment might only consist of a few people. The working group should include:

  • Existing property or school owner
    • This really only applies to expansions or a new build for an existing school, since there’s no reason to bring in the owner of a prospective property who has no vested interest in the school except as the seller
  • Designated project manager
    • Coordinates all aspects of the project and manages the team
    • Oversees and maintains the budget
    • Monitors the project schedule
    • Watches quality of construction and does frequent walk thrus of job site
    • Negotiates requests for change orders with General Contractor (GC)
  • Attorney
    • Executes the acquisition of the property
    • Creates license agreements with neighboring properties
    • Develops and negotiates contracts for architects, consultants, and GC
    • Controls all legal aspects
  • Architect
    • Partners with the school to design a building that matches the mission statement
    • Understands and works within the confines of the school’s budget
    • Prepares drawings and materials for all necessary zoning and permitting
    • Coordinates experts and consultants to prepare construction documents
    • Remains involved throughout construction to ensure carry-out of plans
    • Develops final “punch list” (industry lingo for a to-do list that must be completed in a specified and limited amount of time)
  • Various consultants from the
    • Mechanical/Electrical/Permitting (MEP) engineer
    • Structural engineer
    • Civil engineer
    • Environmental and/or geotechnical engineer
    • LEED professional (Warning: green buildings are VERY expensive, and usually not cost effective in the end)
    • Testing company
    • Other: kitchen, audiovisual, tech, security
  • General contractor
    • Serves as on-site manager of all construction
    • Hires and managed all subcontractors and coordinates their activities to build project
    • Develops and maintains the construction schedule
    • Coordinates necessary municipal inspections
    • Collects and submits close-out documents, completes the punch list, and arranges for various system trainings

There’s no point in putting in a Letter of Intent on a piece of property if you have no intention of starting a school, so it’s best to do as much due diligence on facilities in Stage 1 as you can but wait until you submit your charter (and feel good about it) to continue into formal discussions regarding properties.

Still, starting too late can cause a host of problems, mostly associated with legally committing to a property before doing proper due diligence (Stage 1). Making up for lost time during construction can cost much more, so it’s critical to get a handle on the facilities process early on in the charter school process.

You can start off saving a bit of money by finding a pro bono attorney to help with the property law aspect of this Stage (if you don’t have one on your board). This is most likely if you’re in an underprivileged area. If you can’t find a pro bono attorney, make sure to work with a firm that keeps Real Estate or Land Use attorneys on staff. They’ll carry out due diligence in the form of a Phase 1 (which is the history of the property itself) and a Phase 2 (environmental concerns). The Phase 2 can discover some pretty big problems (arsenic in the soil, endangered species on the land, etc.) and fixing them could end up accounting for 10% of your total development costs. Keep this in mind when building your budget, and make sure that your architectural plan can account for any changes that would occur if the Phase 2 called for it, e.g. earth removal, terrain modification, etc.

Here are some things that will need to be taken into account:

  • Site Factors
    • Access to public transportation
    • School bus access
    • Zoning for permitted uses
    • Open space for play fields
  • Building Condition (if converting)
    • Phase 1 and 2 investigations
    • Assess condition: roof, parapets, walls, windows, doors, and foundation
    • Assess systems: HVAC, outlets, plumbing, lighting (interior and exterior), security, etc.
    • Accessibility (parking, turn lanes, etc.)
    • Existing egress capacity
    • Existing play yards: safety, features, size, systems connection, etc.
  • Dimensional issues:
    • Dimensional requirements for special spaces
    • Structural system for column-free spaces such as gyms and theaters
    • Suitability of column grid for classroom module
    • Building dimensions and suitability for classroom layout
    • Building depth and access to daylight (single loaded, double loaded, donut)
    • Building orientation for daylight
    • Minimum ceiling height for distribution of services

Once all your preparations, due diligence, and permitting are out of the way, you can begin the construction process. The GC will help drive this process, but make sure that you or your appointed expert is managing it. There are some key elements to construction management that will come in handy as the building process unfolds:

  • Review and approve the project schedule
  • Monitor submittals and request for information
  • Conduct weekly meetings with GC and consultants
    • Review project progress
    • Address and resolve issues that arise
    • Review pay applications
    • Review change orders and scope changes
  • Oversee requirements necessary for municipalities
  • Work to obtain the certificate of occupancy
  • Oversee punch list completion
  • Oversee turnover of documents, manuals, and trainings
  • Punch List: School leadership schedules a punch list walk thru with the architect and GC during the final stages of construction, pointing out defects, missing items, substandard finishes, or other concerns, and works to make sure that these items are addressed
  • After municipal inspections are completed, final phase is carried out:
    • GC provides school with copies of all warranties and systems manuals
    • Confirm all as-built drawings have been submitted by GC and approved by architect
    • GC or representatives should walk owner through systems access and training for HVAC and so on
    • Finalize terms of final payments to key vendors and have final requisition submitted by GC

Once your facilities process is completed, there will still be a lot of work to do prepping for the first day of school. You’ll have to fill your classrooms with desks, purchase office and teacher supplies, outfit your gymnasium (if you have one) and playgrounds with the proper equipment, buy all the cleaning supplies, tools, and other maintenance equipment, and many more things before kids actually show up (and before you get paid one cent from public funds). This is where your bargain hunting skills will come in handy, since you can often find discount school furniture and supplies from Districts, private schools, community colleges and universities, libraries, and various thrift stores such as Goodwill and Salvation Army.