Kevin Eipperle delivers a math lesson, facility-engineer style: If the Madison school district has 50 buildings, over 30 years it would cost about $60,000 per building per year to maintain them, according to a recent assessment.
"That's not much at all," says architect Eipperle, a managing principal at Durrant Engineers of Dubuque, Iowa, which did the assessment. "Some of your buildings are half a million square feet."
This is one way to look at Durrant's assessment, which has left some school officials shocked. The consultant's conclusion, presented last month amid already turbulent budget talks, is that the school district will need to find $85 million over time to fix pavement and roofs, electrical systems and playgrounds on its 50 buildings.
The facility assessment, prepared for the district at a cost of $298,740, itemized repairs that needed immediate attention as well as fixes that could wait 10 or more years. It prompted talk that the district may need to hold a referendum on maintenance costs, as it has done in the past.
"When you hear a figure like $85 million, the only way you could possibly consider making that possible is through referendum," says school board member Lucy Mathiak. "It got all of our attention. That's a big number to put out there."
It's also prompted debate over whether Madison really needs - or can afford to make - the recommended fixes.
According to the report, East High tops the list with a need for $11.1 million in "immediate" repairs, followed by $1.4 million for West High, $997,000 for the building that houses Sherman Middle and Shabazz High, and $847,000 for Blackhawk Middle School and Gompers Elementary.
But it remains unclear what is really necessary, among the many items highlighted in the report. These issues have yet to be examined, and probably will not be until after the board and district have finalized their 2010-2011 budget, set for preliminary approval June 1.
Eipperle says his team has not even had a chance to explain the report, its methodology and accompanying database. That is expected to happen over the summer, in July or August. Once board members understand that the report doesn't suggest spending $85 million right away, Eipperle believes they'll put away the panic button.
That may be wishful thinking on his part.
The Madison Metropolitan School District currently budgets about $4 million per year for maintenance, a far cry from some of the numbers outlined in the assessment. About $32 million in fixes are estimated to be necessary now, while nearly $5 million will need to be spent in the next year and another $25 million in the next two years, according to the report.
"We certainly have nothing near that [amount], obviously, to spend on maintenance," says school board vice president Beth Moss. "Right now, we do a lot of emergency work, and we have a list of things we'd like to do in a cyclical manner, but often those get pushed back if they're not necessary for the safety and health of our students and staff."
Eric Kass, the district's assistant superintendent for business services, says he's working with Durrant, "questioning where the cost estimates were coming from."
Eipperle says the estimates were developed using a location-specific project-cost database, similar to projects the company has done for other clients, and figures from the district on recent similar projects.
"Some of the numbers actually came from the [Madison] facility staff, and we were directed on what numbers to use on a couple of occasions," says Eipperle. "We provide a range of costs and hope that...bids come in a little bit less. The majority of the bids are less. Some exceed our numbers."
The report, which spans some 4,500 pages and fills five binders, estimates remaining life for components in each of four areas: mechanical, roofing, pavement and playgrounds. It also grades and ranks each job based on how critical it is.
According to Kass, many of the code issues identified in the report present no safety risk and are now being handled by district custodial staff. He says some of the problems identified in the report were unknown to school staff and are now being remedied. "Others are prioritized on work-order basis."
As Eipperle explains it, Durrant has done similar maintenance-cost assessment for other districts, with the goal of helping them plan and budget wisely, thus saving money in the long run.
"It's really meant to be a planning and budgeting tool," he says. District officials "can get their arms around what the facility needs are 20 to 30 years out, and help them prioritize where they need to spend their dollars now to save for the future."
But Madison school board members are questioning the usefulness of these projections and the necessity of certain recommendations, particularly given the district's current pinched economic situation. For instance, Mathiak says her review seems to show that "for each facility, the recommendation is that doors need to be replaced every five years. I don't think we've ever done that. It adds up."
The report recommends that the district change its current maintenance philosophy of putting out fires - dealing with issues once they present safety concerns - and instead "spread funding over multiple trade areas in order to prevent one area from becoming excessively deteriorated."
Moss isn't sure the district has that luxury: "It's difficult to prioritize, because there are so many issues we have to look at. Safety is the number-one issue, obviously."
The last time the Madison school district did a comprehensive facility-needs report was in 1996. Then a consultant identified more than $200 million in maintenance costs it said should be addressed in 10 years.
District voters that year voted down a referendum to authorize $200 million in maintenance spending over 20 years; but in 1999 a referendum to spend $20 million on maintenance over five years was approved. The district again passed a five-year $20 million referendum for maintenance in 2005.
Board member Arlene Silveira says the board will refocus its attention on the maintenance report once the budget is complete. "We will have to come up with a financial plan to address these needs," she says.
But for Mathiak, it will be a tough sell: "Even if we accept the theory behind these recommendations, the question is do we have the resources, and the answer is no."