Commentary: Fixing problem of Delaware schools’ infrastructure

Deferred infrastructure maintenance in Delaware schools (currently estimated at a cost of well over half billion dollars) continues to escalate and spiral out of control! We need a new approach that is transparent, targeted to priority needs and includes a mandate of efficient and effective implementation,

The recent controversial SB 50SS2 bill, pending signature by Gov. Carney, is a really small step in effectively addressing this escalating problem for school buildings and grounds. In its final form, the Delaware Technical and Community College’s plans for a statewide property tax, managed by an unelected body, was eliminated from the bill.

The bill now says it “intends to allocate $10 million in capital funding each year” but offered no guarantees. It does show intent to show preference to DelTech in the process over other stakeholders in the allocation of capital money. The bill also provides the ability for DelTech to borrow money to help meet its needs.

This bill was opposed by many taxpayers and the Delaware School Boards Association, the Chief School Officers Association, the Delaware State Education Association and the Delaware Association of School Administrators are public education advocacy organizations that represent school boards, superintendents, educators and school administrators throughout the state of Delaware.

The DSBA states “While we support the concept of SB 50, collectively, we formally and respectfully request that the infrastructure needs of the constitutionally mandated K-12 public education system be considered prior to the infrastructure needs of a noncompulsory, tuition-funded community college.”

Bill Bowden

Estimated funds needed are DelTech $100 million, Delaware State University $106 million, and Delaware public schools estimate between $500 million and $1.5 billion. This problem continues to grow exponentially. We are talking about significant amounts of money!

Gov. Carney and the legislature need to work together to structure a master plan to help all schools (including DTCC) address these critical concerns.

I am suggesting the following 10-point plan:

Develop and deploy a new Statewide Infrastructure Management Board/Committee, using “best in class” industry processes and procedures. This would mandate participation from all stakeholder groups. We should use a Government Efficiency and Accountability Review Team (GEAR https://gear.delaware.gov/about-gear/) team of expert practitioners, organized under a project management office structure, to help design and execute this initiative.

Identify and catalog the needed maintenance on a building-by-building and project-by-project basis. On-site assessments, conducted by various teams of architects, engineers, and specialists would gather the data.

Develop cost estimates for each project. These would be derived from local cost-estimating expertise and enhanced by industry best practices, historical cost data and relevance to our region.

Prioritize these projects using newly established criteria similar to these:

• Priority 1 – Mission Critical Concerns: Deficiencies or conditions that may directly affect the school’s ability to stay open or deliver the educational curriculum. These deficiencies typically relate to building safety, code compliance, severely damaged or failing building components and other items that need near-term correction. An example of a Priority 1 deficiency is a fire alarm system replacement.

• Priority 2 – Indirect Impact to Educational Mission: Items that may progress to Priority 1 if not addressed in the near term. Examples of Priority 2 deficiencies include inadequate roofing that could cause deterioration of integral building systems, and conditions affecting building envelopes, such as roof and window replacements.

• Priority 3 – Short-Term Conditions: Deficiencies that are necessary to the school’s mission but may not need immediate attention. These items are necessary improvements required to maximize facility efficiency and usefulness. Examples of Priority 3 items include site improvements and plumbing deficiencies.

• Priority 4 – Long-Term Requirements: Items or systems that are improvements to the instructional environment. The improvements may be aesthetic or provide greater functionality. Examples include cabinets, finishes, paving, removal of abandoned equipment, and educational accommodations associated with special programs.

• Priority 5 – Enhancements: Deficiencies aesthetic in nature or considered enhancements. Typical deficiencies in this priority include repainting, recarpeting, improved signage, or other improvements to the facility environment.

Develop and deploy processes to continually maintain and update this data.

Each year this new board/committee would present the updated data, along with their priority recommendations, to the Governor and the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement (Bond Committee). 

This board/committee would also maintain an ongoing status report reflecting the progress made on previously funded projects.

The Bond Committee would use this detailed information to make strategic funding recommendations based on “defined priority needs” vs the current wholesale general allocation across stakeholder groups. 

The legislature must increased allocations from the annual budget, coupled with the use of available “one-time money”, to meet these needs.

This effort will take some time and would need to start with a quick “deep dive” to find “any and all” building health and safety concerns affecting our students and teachers. These should be the first priority for funding.

The current course of action is clearly not working. We need to start taking definitive action now.

Bill Bowden is a retired Verizon Delaware executive, past president of the Delaware Quality Award, and served for eight years in state government as the executive director of Delaware’s Department of Technology and Information.

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