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New TEA Regulations Increase Districts’ Facility Planning Responsibilities

After several years of study and months of public comment, the Texas Education Agency unveiled a set of substantial revisions to the agency’s regulations concerning school facilities. The new rule, Sec. 61.1040, went into effect on November 1. 

The new TEA rule is designed to help ensure that districts’ capital improvement projects meet a level of “educational adequacy” to protect the interests of both students and taxpayers. Among its provisions:

  • Required “educational specifications” for instructional facilities
  • A required long-range facility plan for all school facilities
  • New safety and security standards for instructional facilities
  • New construction quality standards and compliance measures
  • New square footage requirements for instructional space, common areas, and special spaces

Sec. 61.1040 clarifies guidance for districts planning capital projects while also providing additional flexibility for Districts of Innovation that have adopted non-traditional instructional or operating practices. The new rule also references many provisions of existing law intended to enforce contract compliance, improve accountability, and protect taxpayer investment in publicly-funded facilities.

As with any TEA rule, Sec. 61.1040 requires careful unpacking and diligent analysis. But for school district leaders, here are 5 quick take-aways to consider:

 

1. It’s time to put a premium on planning.

Previously, TEA recommended that districts create a long-range facilities plan to allow them to more accurately forecast future needs and more efficiently develop solutions to those needs. Now that recommendation is a requirement. When beginning new construction or a major renovation, districts must write a campus-specific long-range facilities plan, present it to the school board, and make it available to the project architect.

Alternately — and perhaps more efficiently — districts can also develop a district-wide plan. TEA mandates that it be updated every five years as well as in advance of any capital improvement project. Understanding the real state of your buildings through regular facility assessments will be key to ensuring that the plan is both accurate and actionable.

 
2. Documentation is more important than ever.

In addition to the new planning requirements, Sec. 61.1040 also establishes administrative requirements for procuring, managing, and overseeing design, construction, and other professional services. Having an organized and accessible system for tracking all the associated files and certifications will help ensure that districts keep their i’s dotted and t’s crossed. That protect is vital in the event of audits or litigation.

 

3. Taxpayers want to safeguard their investment.

Many of the new rule’s provisions are intended to ensure that taxpayers get full value for what they’ve paid for. Districts must hire a “prime design professional” (usually an architect) for capital improvement projects. And all key members of the design and construction team — the district as the facility owner, architect, general contractor, construction manager-at-risk, design build team, construction manager agent, and prime contractor or subcontractor — must be officially certified by TEA. Certifications specify contract terms and deliverables and are based on compliance with standards established by both TEA rule and Texas and federal law. And notarized signatures are required from contracts when providing payment certification as part of the certificate of substantial completion documentation process.

 

4. Definitions matter.

The new rule focuses on any capital improvement project that requires the district to hire a licensed architect or engineer. Projects are categorized as “new construction” or “major” or “minor” renovations. District facility leaders should familiarize themselves with how standards vary based on a project’s classification. The rule also gives districts a choice of using either a specified quantitative or a qualitative method to determine if instructional spaces have adequate space. It’s key to understand which compliance method is best suited to the needs and projected usage of your buildings.

 

5. Safety and security are a priority.

Much of the impetus for Sec. 61.1040 was a result of SB 11, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2019 to make schools safer for students and staff. The new rule requires districts to develop not only emergency response site plans and access control standards (to be included in the long-range facility plan), but also a multi-hazard plan that ensures that communications technology and infrastructure allow for communication during an emergency. Additional safety and security provisions are triggered by the level of the overall project budget.

 

The Bottom Line

For districts used to a largely hands-off approach to planning and construction, Sec. 61.1040 is a cold splash of water to the face. Regardless of who the district entrusts with the planning and execution of a construction project, it is the district itself that is primarily accountable for ensuring that facilities meet taxpayers’ expectations and provide optimal learning environments for students.

For districts without tight document and planning controls and processes, the provisions of Sec. 61.1040 are almost certain to be a challenging adjustment. Leveraging owner-focused construction management software like Owner Insite’s platform can help ensure that critical project files, milestones, and issues are appropriately documented before, during, and after construction.  

Capital planning software like Facility Insite can also help district leaders more cost-effectively tackle the process of creating, maintaining, and updating the newly-required long-range facility plans. Facility Insite’s assessment form uses OmniClass™, the standardized classification system for the North American architectural, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry. Leveraging OmniClass ensures absolute clarity about the condition of any asset or facility.

Having an accurate assessment in turn allows district leaders to better identify and prioritize immediate, mid-term, and long-term needs, rather than relying entirely on proprietary assessments conducted by third-party architects or engineers. The bottom line is that it’s never been more important for school districts to have complete visibility into and control over facility planning, construction, and maintenance. 

To learn more about how Owner Insite’s secure, cloud-based software tools can help your district, contact us for a short demo.

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