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School bond projects provide reliable work for firms during pandemic

BY Sunday, December 06, 2020 04:31pm

K-12 school bond projects have emerged as an increasingly reliable source of work for West Michigan construction and architecture firms, even though some districts opted to delay putting projects to a vote this year because of the pandemic.

Most construction firms were able to lean on a healthy backlog of projects throughout the pandemic, but it was still a year of uncertainty as hospitality, higher education and office projects were largely delayed or put on hold indefinitely. 

LEFT: Matt Slagle, RIGHT: Josh Szymanski COURTESY PHOTO

However, the longevity of multi-year school bond projects has provided firms some stabilization this year. 

“This has really been a strong market to keep us stable while other markets come back,” said Matt Slagle, a principal and director of K-12 education at TowerPinkster

About a dozen school bond proposals passed in 2020 in West Michigan, totaling nearly $650 million. The bidding process has gotten more competitive as some architecture firms that lacked a history with school projects pivot to the K-12 sector.

The share of the K-12 market in TowerPinkster’s workload has increased from roughly 40 percent last year to about 60 percent, Slagle said. When many health care and higher education projects were put on hold this year, the firm focused more on K-12.

TowerPinkster planned to be the architect for 10 school bond projects slated for the May 5, 2020 election ballot in West Michigan. Of those, five districts delayed putting their bond project to a vote because of the pandemic. The five that stayed on the ballot each passed.

“The ones that delayed were primarily at the governor’s request. They didn’t have all of the absentee voting process figured out,” Slagle said. “The school bonds that stayed on the ballot primarily were no tax increase that needed to be passed before the millage fell off.”

School districts that rescheduled were on the Nov. 3 ballot or will be determined during the May 2021 election, Slagle said. The firm is involved with nine bond projects totaling $308 million that are expected to be on May ballots.

Stability in uncertainty

Grand Rapids-based Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. is working on seven school bond projects that passed this year, which is a typical pace for the construction firm, said Chief Strategy Officer Josh Szymanski. K-12 construction makes up about 70 percent of the firm’s projects.

“Things we’re noticing is when the absentee voter legislation (Proposal 3) passed in 2018, we were curious about how that would affect school bonds and thought it might hurt them. But if anything, it helped them — passage rates have been quite high,” Szymanski said.

Historically, more absentee votes tended to work against school bond proposals passing, but that hasn’t been the case so far, Szymanski said. The pandemic likely led to fewer bond proposals making the ballot this year, but passage rates have “all been really steady,” he said. 

“The priority level has dropped, and rightfully so, and there are a few less bonds out there and a few less people looking at them than normal,” Szymanski said. “Nevertheless, the K-12 work still provides us a lot of stability.” 

This has also led to increased competition as more firms shift focus to the K-12 market.

“When there is an RFP out for a project, there is at least twice the competition as before and you see people from out of state trying to get in on a school project,” Slagle said. “It’s really beneficial we’ve had this expertise for years and have been able to lean on it at this time.”

COVID’s effect on projects

A key aspect to pursuing a school bond project is holding stakeholder engagement forums for the community, said Jeff Hoag, K-12 practice leader at Holland-based GMB Architecture + Engineering.

“Once the pandemic hit, the ability to connect with people and to gather and get people together to help educate them on what the needs are and why a project is important, that got really challenging,” Hoag said. 

GMB, along with other construction firms in the region, created physical materials to send home with students, and made a transition to holding virtual stakeholder forums. 

“What we’ve found is that the process in some ways allowed people to feel more comfortable attending those meetings,” Hoag said. “A lot of the material is being recorded, so they can go back and watch it. In some cases we’ve seen greater participation than in the traditional forums.”

Several West Michigan architecture firms involved in K-12 construction have noted increased participation in virtual community forums. TowerPinkster, for example, saw triple its normal forum participation the first time it held a community forum over Zoom.

Some logistics of school bond projects are also changing because of the pandemic. The focus for school developments has long been on student safety, but this year included a renewed focus on increasing air quality and upgrading HVAC systems to help with room ventilation. 

“What I’ve seen is people really starting to embrace the idea of health, safety and security all rolled into one,” Hoag said. 

School leaders are also interested in creating more large, open spaces rather than enclosed areas, said Steven Hoekzema, another director of K-12 education at TowerPinkster.

“Some of our clients are concerned about healthy environments more now so we’ve increased ventilation, and they’re interested in operable windows, and are holding breaktimes outdoors on patios rather than inside,” Hoekzema said.

Szymanski agreed that, while always a priority, air quality has moved to the top of the list.

“It’s an obvious way to address the situation,” Szymanski said. “We can’t make every classroom bigger, but if we can improve the air quality, how students flow in and out of classrooms, then those are things we can change.”

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