Larkins says the review stems from various factors, including concerns over past project funding priorities, but adds that the roughly $4 billion in the capital plan not yet borrowed should be put in place over the next four to five years. “What we expect is that the revised capital plan would include more projects because of our ability to deliver our projects in a more cost-effective and efficient way,” he adds.

For now, the biggest pockets of activity are in the cities, with New York City slated to open 26 new school buildings this year, topping its previous high of 18 last year. “As it turns out, at this moment we are at our peak of activity,” says Kathleen Grimm, deputy chancellor of operations for the city’s Department of Education, which oversees the SCA and its new $11 billion, five-year capital plan.

Meanwhile Buffalo is halfway through its $1.4 billion, 60-school renovation program that LPCiminelli is managing, says Gene Partridge, executive v.p. for the firm. The third phase finishing now covers nine school projects valued at $325.6 million, while the fourth now underway has 10 projects valued at $292.2 million. Each phase also funds a set of district-wide modernization efforts. A fifth phase in the plans will probably total $150 million, Partridge says.

And Rochester is launching a $325 million program with Gilbane as program manager, while Syracuse is close to starting its own $150 million effort, Rogér says. And Gilbane is in the final stages of a $1.4 billion renovation program for the New Haven schools, with about $200 million in the pipeline for six current projects.

But it’s also clear that most of the new work – other than New York City – is focused on renovation and not new construction. “Most of the new projects started up last year and this year are renovation work,” Rogér says. “For the first time in 10 years, renovation projects surpassed the new construction projects. Our theory is just the lesser availability of financing forces focus on projects that need to be done, putting new construction on the back burner.”

And even in New York City, the SCA is closely assessing options other than new construction. “This [capital] plan is also one where we are focusing on realigning our existing facilities to maximize the use of the space within them,” he adds.

Butts says the renovation tilt also explains the lower construction dollar volume as well. “And that’s going to continue for a while, from what we understand,” he says. Indeed, both Connecticut and New York’s state education agencies say they’re seeing proportionally more renovation projects submitted for state aid than before.

Tougher Assignments

As contractors na-vigate a slowing market, they’re also sorting through trends reshaping the sector – from the rise of green construction and charter schools to the specter of weakened subcontractors.

Subcontractor financial woes loom large, says DeMatteis’s Tartaro. “They used to have cash flow, but now they can’t wait for the change order money,” he adds. “Some of them are just going out of business.”

Tartaro says DeMatteis recently scrambled to replace a subcontractor shut down by its bank. “In the past, you might get one of those every five jobs, usually with the small firms,” he adds. “But now it’s large companies, small companies – you can’t predict it. It’s put a wrinkle into how we operate, and every contractor is dealing with it.”

Contractors also have to stay current on sustainable design requirements across the region. Every major New York’s City project now follows the SCA’s green guidelines adopted in 2007, and many of the first generation of schools designed under them come online this September. Among them is the $80.8 million P.S./I.S. 276 in Manhattan’s Battery Park City, a 952-student, eight-story school that features high-efficiency boilers and photovoltaic solar panels generating 50 kw of power. Dattner Architects designed the school and DeMatteis is building it.

Similarly, all large state-funded school projects in Connecticut must meet a LEED Silver equivalent, and in New Jersey, the SDA has established 24 criteria in its 21st Century Schools Design guidelines for energy-efficient planning. Several years ago, New York State adopted its Collaborative for High-Performance Schools guidelines, which Robert says are voluntary for now, but could become permanent if pending legislation advances.

Designers and contractors also are adapting skill sets to new school programming needs, particularly with the spread of charter schools, which tend to be smaller and lack facilities budgets. Grimm says while New York State encourages charter school creation, it offers little financial support for space.

“We have in a few cases partnered with charter schools in terms of [co-]developing facilities but the bigger emphasis has been on placing charter schools in available DOE space,” she says. “And so this September we will have a total of 83 charter schools in DOE spaces.”

One example of how this may impact the design and construction process is in the planned use of the new, 300,000-sq-ft Mott Haven Educational Campus opening this September in the Bronx. The 1,767-student capacity building, on which DeMatteis is contractor, has centralized resources such an auditorium, gyms, and cafeterias, but the campus will house five separate schools – the New Explorers High School, Urban Assembly School for Careers in Sports, Bronx Leadership Academy II High School, KIPP Academy Charter School, and Bronx Studio School.

Contractors also have to monitor new rules that states have been implementing in efforts to trim costs and streamline aid programs. In New Jersey, Larkins says the current four-month review aims to reset the state’s project funding prioritization rules and should also revamp the SDA’s operating model. The agency already has announced an internal staff reorganization away from a “departmental” model to a “team-based” approach in order to achieve cost efficiencies.

In Connecticut, meanwhile, legislation in recent years has directly impacted contractors and designers, including a law requiring local districts to competitively bid for construction services with RFQs and RFPs, and another law that limits contractor-driven change orders to 5% of the project budget, Wedge says. “That caused a lot of shock waves,” he adds.