Thomas Brady is assistant superintendent, department of facilities services, for the Fairfax County Public Schools, Fairfax, Virginia. He can be reached at email@example.com. This is his first article for Facilities Manager. Jan Mulvaney and Catherine Alifrangis of the office of facilities services provided assistance on this article.
Throughout history, unusual and often unrelated events merge to create a singular impact. One such conflux is the "perfect storm," memorialized in the book and movie of the same title. In one of the rarest events of the last century, three separate weather phenomena aligned themselves and created a path of destruction. Efforts to deal with this emergency needed to be immediate and were made in an information void.
Although certainly a far cry from this meteorological event, the conflux of several factors in Fairfax County Public Schools in 2000/2001 created such a "storm." School personnel in the system, located in Northern Virginia, were familiar with strategies needed to build facilities as the school population grew. Planning decisions were made with input from various sources, including population surveys and housing development applications. Although not foolproof, this system had managed the building of eight new schools over the previous ten years and renovation of, or additions to, 58 others. Now, however, a surge in the school population growth, coupled with program changes and limited funding, exasperated the problem. These varied and unforeseen factors impacted this procedure, and their confluence necessitated a new way of dealing with the facilities issue.
Facilities Services was facing challenges unknown in the past. Proactive leadership in this time of competing resources was an unparalleled opportunity for change. With the resources of a team committed to providing the best for the students in Fairfax County Public Schools, my challenge to all was to be bold in their thinking and creative in their solutions.
This article will delineate the factors that contributed to the facilities crisis, explain the planning process implemented to address them, and offer suggestions for adaptation by other institutions of learning. The focus is on the need to be proactive, to scan the environment for change, and to incorporate collective wisdom in the decisions made to address these changes. It could be everyone's response to "the perfect storm."
Who owns the problem?
As with the Andrea Gail's crew efforts to save their ship, at first glance the situation appeared to be a facility problem. Through a radar scan, however, it became clear that this was a system-wide issue affecting over 200 schools. A rescue ship could not save the Andrea Gail's , and more portable classrooms or trailers were not the solution to the need for more classroom space since the school board had identified as a strategic target a reduction of 15 percent in the number of students in such locations.
What factors created the situation?
Had only one or maybe two of the weather phenomena been in place, there probably wouldn't be a story to tell. It is the same with the school dilemma. It was the conflux of myriad factors that created "an emergency." These multiple factors could be grouped in three categories:
These factors, coupled with previous scrambling for space, a vocal community, and the reality that the system could not keep "plugging the dike" brought the issue to a critical level.
How to approach?
As noted earlier, it became apparent that the school system needed creative and innovative thinking from a wide variety of perspectives, background, and expertise. To meet this need, a process, under the umbrella of instructional accommodations planning, was initiated to:
What steps were taken?
Step 1: A task force was created to develop an Instructional Accommodations Plan of proposed strategies for addressing the need for more classroom space. Members of the task force included representatives from both school-based leadership and the central office. The joint leadership by both the deputy superintendent and the assistant superintendent of facilities services emphasized the system's commitment to this endeavor.
Step 2: The task force met over a period of four months to identify strategies that were feasible approaches.
Step 3: The leadership of the task force met with all the principals to apprise them of the current dilemma, seek their suggestions and input as to viable solutions, and enlist their support as the school system moved forward in addressing the problem. A facilitator from the system's planning office guided the group to brainstorm ideas, discuss the feasibility of the suggestions, and provide a balanced perspective.
Step 4: Following the meetings described above, all suggestions and input received from the principals were divided into the following categories:
These initiatives were placed in priority order within each category and selected ideas were presented in an informational meeting to the school board. The school board demonstrated support by voting to move forward to implement the Instructional Accommodations Plan.
Step 5: A special projects manager was selected to work with the assistant superintendent of facilities services to coordinate all aspects of the Instructional Accommodations Plan. Objectives of the plan were developed and included:
Step 6: The special projects manager was responsible for:
What is the current status?
Everyone living and working in Fairfax County has an investment in "sustaining the high quality of the instructional program." This emphasis is the goal and driving force of the Instructional Accommodation Plan, as well. Two years after the initiation of the process described above, several initiatives have been implemented and several others are in the planning stages.
More importantly, however, the priority focus on the classroom space problem and the involvement of numerous groups (teachers, school-based and central administrators, parents, local and state elected officials, business and industry representatives, and community members) in its solution have heightened awareness in a way that has spawned creative thinking in seemingly unrelated meetings. A team approach to what initially was considered a facilities issue has broadened ownership of both the problem and the solution. The children and taxpayers of Fairfax County are the true beneficiaries.
What Does the Future Hold?
The Perfect Storm was an opportunity for bold action in the face of unprecedented forces. The captain and crew of the Andrea Gail did not have adequate warning tools and were taken by surprise at the ferocity of the storm. Although brave risk takers, they reacted and fell just short of riding out the storm and a safe return to home port.
School systems cannot afford to be ill prepared for the countless issues to which they need to react. Those that utilize all the forecasting tools available and formulate a collaborative, proactive plan, however, can successfully negotiate the way.