“It’s never going to be enough,” says Briget Horton, furniture equipment supervisor with Wake County Public School System in Raleigh, N.C., referring to the amount of money her district has every year to spend on new furniture.
Likely, every administrator reading this article is nodding his or her head in agreement with Horton. The question this issue raises is: How do you spend the money you do have so that new furniture is equitably distributed throughout the district?
The Survey Says
Well, in Horton’s case, she uses surveys.“We have a prescribed list of furniture, and we send it by grade level to every school,” she says.“We classify furniture needs into four categories: health and safety, broken and outdated, program needs and wish list.”
Horton has used this process three times in 10 years and believes it works well for this district of 114,000 students and approximately 128 schools. “The first time we did it, it was because we had money designated through a bond to replace furniture. The two times since then we’ve done it to identify the needs that are out there, so that we could ask for money to replace furniture.”
Once money has been earmarked, Horton resurveys before ordering. “We recheck that the needs are still the same,” she says. “Sometimes it takes years before the money becomes available through different avenues. During that time, administrators may have met their needs through other sources, or a new principal may see a need that an old principal didn’t.”
Once the surveys are returned, Horton’s office sifts through them. “There’s a human factor to this,” she concedes. “Some people can be in a relatively new school and think they need tons of new stuff, and then there are people in old schools who’ve been making do for a long time with what they have, and they say, 'We’re fine.' We really leave it up to the system to work, but we also have to make some judgment calls.”
Kettering City School District in Ohio, which includes 12 schools and 7,700 students, uses a similar, if not as thorough, system for evenly distributing furniture throughout the district.
“I don’t think there’s anything too complex about the process I’ve used in the last few years, and it has been working well in that we designate every year some money for classroom furniture,” says Ken Lackey, director of Business Services. “We budget from both our general fund and our permanent improvement fund.
“My process for equitably distributing furniture is this: I go to the principals and I ask them what their needs are for the following year. I have them look in their buildings and look for the condition of the furniture. Then they let me know what their needs are.”
Lackey does his surveying every winter, then places his furniture order in late winter or early spring so that it arrives in time for the new school year at the end of August.
“Fortunately,” says Lackey, “virtually every year, the needs that the principals come back to us with have been things we’ve been able to handle budgetwise. If they aren’t, the principals are asked to scale back their requests.”
In addition to this system, the district is on a cycle of purchasing about four rooms of furniture each year for the two middle schools and one high school. “Basically, the principals decide which are the worst-condition rooms,” Lackey notes.
Like Horton, Lackey notes that he has to rely on the principals and site managers at each school to be responsible to replace furniture that needs to be replaced when it needs to be replaced and to be prudent about what they replace and why. “We’re fortunate in that our principals are good stewards,” he says.
Lackey sees a benefit to this system. “I think that, by purchasing furniture at the district level, we have more uniformity about what we buy, which I like. Some principals may buy some different types of furniture out of different budgets, and it may not have the quality that we would buy. We buy high-quality furniture that will last for a good time.”
Mike Langley, executive director of facility management at Denver Public Schools, replaces furniture on a more relaxed system. “We replace furniture as needed on a school-to-school basis with their individual budgets,” he says. “So, as long as a principal has money in his budget, he can order replacement furniture any time of the year.”
Where the equality comes in for this district of 72,000 students and 148 schools is in standards. “We have templates for what we buy, how much money we should spend per classroom or school or type of facility or purpose,” says Langley. “We try to make it as standard as possible.”
The templates were created by the facility management department and programmers on the education side of the house, based on the number of students per classroom and curriculum.needs. The standards were created for the district’s '98 bond and were updated, along with the education specifications, for an '03 bond. “They will be updated again on the next bond or if somebody says this isn’t working and we need to modify it,” Langley says. "This allows for equality."
Stretching for Equality
All three of these districts have other tools they use to make sure that furniture is evenly distributed among schools while, at the same time, being mindful of the budget.
For example, both Horton and Langley pull furniture from a district warehouse. “Our senior director of purchasing has warehouse space where he keeps a number of new things on hand for replacement,” says Horton. “Also, as we renovate spaces, we keep any furniture that’s surplus and reusable in the warehouse to reuse it in the system.”
Langley also says that surplus reusable furniture is redistributed in the district to any school that has a need. “The school can have the furniture for free — it’s district property, and it’s already paid for.” He notes that, periodically, used furniture is auctioned off publicly, but only after the schools’ needs have been met.
Horton also sticks close to her vendors where new furniture is concerned. “The vendors with whom I work, who are on our state contract in North Carolina, are really good about replacing things,” she says. “Warranties last a year and, if a seat breaks, the vendor will send a new seat for our maintenance people to replace. It really helps us out.”
Another tool, this one employed by Lackey, involves timing. The district’s budget starts in July and ends in June. “We don’t do much with our furniture budget until late winter,” he says. This means that, if a need does arise in the fall, the money is available to address it.
“The last phone call I took was from a high school music teacher talking about how bad the furniture in her classroom is,” Lackey says. “So we do have things that pop up in the school year. In this case, we can help her out now as opposed to waiting until spring and having the furniture be delivered in the summer.”
As Horton pointed out in the beginning of this article, no district is ever going to have enough money to take care of all of it’s furniture needs, but the key to equitable distribution of the furniture you do buy is having a system in place. Any system is better than no system, as Horton observes: “I think we have a very good system in place. It’s not without it’s flaws, but we do a pretty good job of maximizing furniture dollars.”