There are ambitious construction plans at major universities and school districts across the U.S., with the recent completion of major projects not slowing down the pace in the education market. Private universities with large endowments are tackling complex capital plans, with signature buildings by major architects already underway. But the biggest volume of construction work in the K-12 sector may hinge on a grab bag of state ballot initiatives being voted on.

Public university systems and the nation’s largest school districts are hoping that voters will decide in favor of major capital projects can move forward.

In Colorado, voters this November will decide on 62 different ballot items, seeking a total of $4.2 billion in education bonds, the largest tally in the state’s history and easily eclipsing the $2.7 billion sought for schools in 2008. As much as two-thirds of the requested funding is for new school construction and renovation. A record level of in-state migration has driven Colorado’s rising student population, and diminished state funding for education over the past six years has resulted in deferred maintenance and postponed capital projects across the state. 

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Meanwhile, California is set to vote on Proposition 51, a measure that would allow the state to sell $9 billion in general obligation bonds for new construction and modernization of its educational facilities. The funding package includes $7 billion for K-12 public schools and $2 billion for community-college facilities. The first school construction bond measure on the state ballot since 2006, it seeks to address an estimated $2 billion backlog of school modernization, renovation and construction.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is wrapping up the fourth phase of  the school construction program it began following a bond vote in 1998, but much work needs to be done in replacing and renovating aging school buildings in phase five, according to Mark Hovatter, LAUSD facilities chief.

“We’re $20 billion through a $28-billion program of bonds that are approved right now,” he says. “We’re months away from finishing 131 of 131 new schools, but we have another 670 schools that are old and worn out and in need of modernization. The focus of the next phase is modernizing our existing campuses.”

Despite having its funding for the current and next phases more or less secured, LAUSD has had to deal with some unexpected shortages in skilled labor and higher-than-expected bids on its projects in recent years. “All of our bids are higher than estimated. Right now, everyone is doing work, and it’s getting harder and harder to get good contractors,” says Hovatter. “We don’t want to force people to bid lower, but last year all of our projects were 12% over estimate.” 

Chicago Public Schools are looking to make up a funding shortfall with a $1-billion bond sale recently approved by the school board. The package would fund construction, repairs and other improvements to district schools. Some of the funds would go toward refinancing debts, but up to $840 million would fund a series of planned construction projects. These funds are separate from the $475 million in short-term credit Chicago schools secured this year.

This arrangement to fill a funding shortfall was the ideal solution, but there is extensive renovation and construction work that needs to be done, regardless of whether the funding is in place, according to the district. “CPS is pursuing long-term financing for critical capital needs, [such as] air-conditioning, technology upgrades, roof and building repairs, ADA accessibility and overcrowding relief, to help ensure our students have a safe and comfortable place to learn,” Emily Bittner, district spokeswoman, told ENR. “We look forward to continuing to receive public input as we make determinations on a supplemental capital plan.” 

Building Big in Higher Education

Fueled by growing endowments and growing academic programs, private universities are developing signature projects and building out their campuses.

Columbia University has completed construction of its Renzo Piano-designed Jerome L. Greene Science Center, the first of five buildings at its new Manhattanville campus in New York City. “It’s the largest building the university has ever built, and I believe it’s the largest academic building in New York City,” says Marcelo Velez, Columbia University vice president for Manhattanville development. The 450,000-sq-ft building boasts a double-skin curtain wall, which significantly reduces noise pollution from a nearby subway line. An adjacent, 50,000-sq-ft performing-arts center also  is nearing completion.

Two of the next buildings slated to begin in the near future are business school buildings designed by FXFOWLE and Diller Scofido + Renfro, respectively, that are set to open in 2021. Crews are gearing up to begin significant below-grade work, which will add 450,000 sq ft of basement space to the Manhattanville campus’ physical plant, according to Velez.

With most of the city and state approvals in place for the university’s ambitious building plans, Velez says things are going smoothly for the Manhattanville program. More projects are still on the drawing board, and the new campus eventually will consist of 16 new buildings. But issues with finding skilled labor and contractors in a hectic market has been an issue, he notes.

“Really, the market is pretty busy, and finding the best contractors and trade contractors to bid our projects—that’s probably the biggest challenge we’ve faced so far in this effort. It’s about finding the right contractors,” says Velez.