Three reasons districts struggle to update their facility use fees

Working with school districts across the country has given Facilitron broad insight and perspective into the challenges schools face with school facility use. Through helping districts navigate these challenges, we’ve acquired a certain expertise on nearly everything schools face – from general management practices to facility use fees.

One of the most common challenges our district partners face is that of updating their facility use fees.

“Our district hasn’t updated our fee schedules in ____ years!”

In an era where districts are consistently asked to do more with less, having effective policies regarding facility use, including updating fee schedules, is necessary for financial survival. Unfortunately, most districts neglect updating their fee schedules for similar reasons.

First and foremost, given the responsibilities districts have to meet their primary objectives as educators, restructuring community facility use fees is understandably not a top priority.

Second, most districts are aware that facility use policies and fee structures can be difficult to enforce and may conflict with existing school-community arrangements. Many of these arrangements are rooted in historical behavior or personal views that create a variety of exceptions when it comes to how community organizations are treated.

In today’s litigious society, it goes without saying that this is problematic. But even setting aside potential liability concerns, without a clearer understanding of all the exceptions and arrangements which exist in the district, setting new fee policy without the ability to effectively track and measure its implementation and effect is unlikely to be productive.

But finally, and most challenging, districts struggle to collect and access the data that provides the tangible basis for updating fees. Said another way, they simply don’t have enough information on which to base decisions. This may explain why we hear another commonly asked question...

“What do other districts charge?"

Rate comparisons provide a valuable reference point for setting district fee schedules and are frequently requested by districts. Though districts don’t typically compete with one another, understanding market rates in a region can position districts competitively with each other. Of course, basing rates on a neighboring district's outdated rates is like “the blind leading the blind.” Such an exercise may not help either district close the gap on operational deficits or in realizing and addressing problems with process. Nevertheless, rate comparisons do serve as a reference point in helping a district determine their new rates.

Using data to drive decisions

So how exactly should districts decide on new fees? The answer is data.

“Going too fast too quickly is never a good idea. But having conversations (about facility use) takes time—and without data, there’s nowhere to go.”

That’s what Dr. Diana Abbati, superintendent of Los Gatos Union School District, said after un-recouped expenses from years of use by her community left her district’s facilities in desperate need of repair. The district was burdened in particular by a joint power agreement with the city of Los Gatos from the 1970s which allowed the city-affiliated recreation organization to access school facilities at little or no charge. That not only affected the condition of their facilities, it impacted the classroom as well.

“The school districts are community assets,” Dr Abbati says. “We wanted to continue to do that, however we were doing it at the cost of student programs. We were not regaining enough costs to maintain the facilities over time. So we were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in student programs.”

To turn things around, the district began to track both internal and external facility use through a Facilitron partnership and soon found that over 31 thousand hours of annual facility use was from community groups - over 45% of total use. Using this data, the district was able to illustrate the operational stress and financial burden it was enduring from overuse of facilities and engage with the community to propose changes.

Measuring utilization to understand costs

Facility utilization data is critical for understanding costs and providing a basis for what fee structures for community users should look like. When districts put together school and community utilization data with cost data - utilities, maintenance, custodial, grounds, and security costs along with square footage - districts can get very accurate data on the actual cost per hour of operating their different buildings and fields.

This cost analysis is an integral part of how data-driven districts of the future will establish meaningful metrics to base how they set their facility use fees.

Establishing a baseline

Using cost analysis data along with the details of recovery revenue from community groups can quickly provide an understanding of whether districts are subsidizing these community groups or actually recovering the cost of facility use.

To get to that kind of understanding about your district’s community use, the first step is to establish where you are as a district TODAY with these uses and with the associated facility recovery revenue. Tracking current district policy rates versus the actual recovery cost revenue collected will establish a baseline from which to begin to make and measure changes. These changes not only affect facility use fees, but help better manage operations from a business services perspective. Before districts can be data-driven, they have to be data-aware.

Establishing a baseline for your district’s current policy will also provide a better understanding of problems with your current process. It will expose gross inefficiencies, potential liabilities, areas of misunderstanding, or ways that the community (sometimes with school cooperation) are - innocently or not - circumventing district policy by operating in heretofore unseen gray areas. These are major areas of potential liability and revenue loss.

Ultimately, districts must look at the upkeep of their facilities, their responsibility to provide for the learning needs of children, and their relationship with the community in a different and more holistic way.

"I think the term 'facilities management' is interesting because it can take on an old connotation or a new one,” said National Superintendent of the Year, Dr. Philip Lanoue, author and now head of PDL Consultants.

"How I look at it is, facilities are one of your greatest assets, and how do you leverage your assets? I think if you look at it that way, it’s much larger than how am I going to manage and fix my facilities."

Partnerships can bring new thinking

Public-private partnerships can bring new thinking, technology and expertise to school districts so they can better leverage their assets and transform their operations to benefit both children and communities. Providing important infrastructure for community programs while ensuring that its schools provide the best possible environment for learning.

"I’ve always taken the position that when our kids walk into a building, they need to be wowed,” Lanoue continued. “And I really learned that the environment, over time, is often like a catalyst or an enzyme - it makes all of the other work happen.”

By leveraging technology-rich partnerships that bring expertise and new kinds of thinking to facility operations, districts can access the data needed to create and apply meaningful policies that can have a major impact on the health and performance of schools.