By T. R. Dunlap

Nobody should underestimate the importance of careful planning when schools engage in any operation or initiative. While many of us are eager to take an idea and run with it, the academic literature and case studies frequently remind us that planning cannot be ignored.  The research has indicated that the quality of a school's site-based plan is crucial to ensure positive implementation outcomes (Strunk, Marsh, Bush-Mecenas, & Duque, 2016), and other planning initiatives are equally invaluable. Whether a school is looking to build, expand, consolidate, or make changes in their operations, is it best to produce a planning document to clearly identify steps and describe the vision to others. Cook (2001) describes the important components in developing effective plans in his book Strategics: beliefs, mission, parameters, strengths, weaknesses, organizational design, competition, external analysis, critical issues, objectives, strategies, and priority actions.  These considerations can act as a template when educational planners begin their work to plan the future of their facility.

Facility planning for schools is a dynamic and challenging venture.  As educational planners, we have to be aware of the many stakeholders and competing interest involved in our planning initiatives. Whether you're an experienced planner or new to the enterprise of facility planning, the Education Facilities Clearinghouse (EFC) has been working to supply you with useful resources for your work. Our library and training tools feature some helpful planning document, and we've produced a video series on the important aspects of facility planning.  Educational facilities planning should include 5 major planning documents: educational facilities master plan, capital improvement plan, maintenance plan, energy and environmental management plan, and a safety and emergency operations plan.  To learn more watch the first video in our series on Education Facilities Planning.

To view the entire series, click here.

State and federal mandates for school systems require us to develop meaningful plans to establish vision and direction and demonstrate accountability with those in the community and governing authorities.  Federal mandates have also come with capacity building initiatives to help school leaders create and maintain effective plans.  For example, in light of the demands for schools to be ready in the event of emergency, the federal departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, and Health and Human Services, along with the FBI and FEMA jointly produced the Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Planswhich is housed on the EFC website, to help schools establish a planning protocol and develop meaningful planning documents.  Similarly, the EFC has also been established by a federal grant to supply schools with technical assistance as school leaders begin and operate in the planning process.  As your school has need of help in planning activities, keep in mind the many resources that are available.

For additional planning resources, click here.



Cook, W. J. (2000). Strategics: the art and science of holistic strategy. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books.

Strunk, K. O., Marsh, J. A., Bush-Mecenas, S. C., & Duque, M. R. (2016). The best laid plans an examination of school plan quality and implementation in a school improvement initiative. Educational Administration Quarterly, 52(2), 259–309.

By Art Stellar, Ph.D.

Many school districts have deteriorating school buildings. Most have unmet needs for major renovations and repairs. The reason these situations are left unaddressed is lack of funds. Regular operating budgets have little in preventive maintenance or repair accounts except for the gravest occurrences. Capital budgets pay off old bond issues or adhere to one significant issue at a time. States rarely provide funding for school buildings and then usually on a reimbursement basis. It can take two years to clearly articulate building needs and to generate sufficient local public support to pass a new bond referendum.

A good source of funds for school renovations is Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (QZAB). Yet, very few school administrators or officials know about QZAB. This includes school facility directors, business managers, bond attorneys, and school board members. This brief article provides an overview of QZAB and how QZAB can resolve lingering or anticipated school facility needs.

What is QZAB?                                                                                                                                                                    

QZAB is a zero interest, 25-year loan program US Congress has authorized since 1998 at $400 million per year for K-12 public schools. Early in 2016 there was a billion dollars available in the United States for eligible schools. The US Treasury Department determines the allocation of these funds to each state based upon a formula related to total population and income levels. To see your state’s allocations, visit

Interested schools apply to their state departments of education who make decisions to allocate no interest QZAB funds to schools within their state. Usually the process is “first come, first served”, although some states have other procedures. Charter schools are generally eligible, if they meet the criteria.

The states issue approval letters, which can be used by the receiving school districts to sell bonds at the amounts specified. The school districts pay no interest on these bonds and, except for a couple of states, do not have to go to a public vote to “cash in” on the approval letters.

The sale of the bonds produces the actual QZAB funds for the school district. These funds have to be spent within three years of the issuance of the approval letter, although there are a few exceptions for less than three years depending on when the approval was conveyed.

The Federal Government offers tax credits to the institutions or individuals who purchase the QZAB bonds. The amount of the tax credit varies according to the overall bond market, but is typically worth between 4 to 5% of the bond and good for 25 years as a reduction of Federal taxes owed. These credits can be rolled over to future years and/or sold; hence, there is an important economic benefit to the buyer of the bonds.

Schools that gain approval of the QZAB bonds experience a real advantage of QZAB in their ability to issue no interest bonds. While schools pay different rates for bonds depending upon a variety of factors, most school districts are paying close to 5% interest on current bonds. Over the course of 25 years, a five percent interest charge can double the amount the school district pays. (Think of your 30-year home mortgage in which you pay 5 times the cost of your home by the time the mortgage is paid.) Also, due to inflation, the bonds are paid off with money that is worth less each year than the previous year. No interest bonds such as QZAB are like having “free money” since only the principal is paid.


A school must have 35% or more students on free/reduced meals or the reasonable expectation that there will be 35% to be eligible for QZAB funds. The “QZ” stands for Qualified Zone, which can also be a federally defined enterprise zone; however, the simplest means of determining eligibility is to identify those schools that meet the 35% or more free and reduced student criteria.

Use of Funds

The proceeds of the QZAB bonds can be used for these categories: facilities renovation, energy efficiency, curriculum, teacher training, technology, equipment, renewable energy, and/or academy expenses. QZAB funds cannot be used for buying land or for building new buildings. QZAB funds, however, can be used to cover interior and exterior costs, once the shell of a new building is paid for with other funds.

QZAB funds can be utilized to replace/repair roofs, windows, parking lots, physical education facilities, lighting systems, furnaces, plumbing, electrical work, air conditioning, etc. Security systems can be added. Technology can be purchased. Solar panels, wind generators, or geothermal units are all legitimate expenses. (For a complete list, contact me at and ask for a planning guide).

A few states have peculiar biases or restrictions regarding the use of QZAB funds for certain kinds of technology, school buses, or what can be purchased for the academy. Contact someone with expertise and practical QZAB experience to confirm specific qualifications for the federal and state governments.

Required Federal Mandates (2 main requirements)

Some school districts do not pursue QZAB funds because they do not know how to meet the requirements. A vendor, who may attempt to sell a district bonds without mentioning requirements or deemphasizing them, has misinformed some districts. A few districts ignore or forget about federal mandates. State department personnel may overlook them due to being unaware or lack of attention to detail. There are federal legal requirements, however, which can get a district in trouble with the IRS when that agency audits a district’s spent QZAB funds.

It is not difficult to comply with the mandates, especially if a district uses a QZAB experienced nonprofit like the nonprofit National Education Foundation.

1) 10% Match Donation from a business or nonprofit of the total QZAB requested/approved. There are a variety of ways to meet this requirement, but the district has to document that the match is real and worthy of meeting at least ten percent of the total QZAB amount approved. The easiest method is to have a cash donation(s) or a donation from an organization that has already completed the research, like the nonprofit National Education Foundation, to justify to the IRS the value of the match donation.

2) Develop a NEW QZAB Academy for students designed and/or implemented in cooperation with the designated match partner to “better prepare students for college and workforce.” The “A” in QZAB stands for Academy which makes it hard to understand how some QZAB applications omit this key component or others involved in the process fail to notice when there is no academy. The IRS will hold the district responsible for this mandate.

The academy has to be NEW and not something the district has already been doing. An existing educational program will not be considered an academy just because it has been labeled an academy.

The term academy was not definitively defined when Congress originally approved QZAB. There does have to be an academy plan in place for any school site where QZAB funds are to be spent. The overall academy plan must be consistent with local, state, and Federal standards and curriculum. More states are including statements in their QZAB applications that make the academy a concrete educational program. A QZAB academy must be an observable and reasonable learning venture that meets the mission embedded in the QZAB legislation. Without an academy at a school site, QZAB funds cannot be spent there.

If a district is interested, it would be beneficial to research and make official inquiries as to the regulations as QZAB is often a funding source that is overlooked. Please visit the QZAB website to learn more.


The QZAB or Qualified Zone Academy Bond program is a source hidden or unknown by most school officials. Fortunately, it is not as complex as it first may appear. QZAB is an excellent source of funds to address needed building renovations. At the same time a savvy school district can apply QZAB funds—matching and/or the bond proceeds directly—to establish a productive educational academy to raise student achievement. The key is to either intensively study QZAB or collaborate with a knowledgeable and experienced partner.

Dr. Art Stellar is Vice-President of the nonprofit National Education Foundation where he has assisted school administrators across the country in acquiring QZAB approval for over $120 million with at least that much currently in the pipeline. He served as a widely recognized superintendent for 25 years, as well as working for Renaissance Learning and leading the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation as president/CEO. He has served as president of ASCD, The Horace Mann League, and the North American Chapter of the World Council of Curriculum and Instruction; vice-president of the New York state PTA; and Chairman of the Board of Directors for the National Dropout Prevention Network and Center.

Environmental Protection Agency (2015)

School locations and community development are inextricably linked. School locations affect community land use patterns and infrastructure needs. Local land use, the location and capacity of road and utility networks, and community investments in economic development, housing, and other social programs affect school surroundings and learning environments. Taken together, school siting and other community decisions influence housing and transportation choices, neighborhood vitality, economic development, costs of community services, environmental quality, and overall community health and well-being.

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T. R. Dunlap

Conversations on the development of 21st century learning spaces highlight the important role of planning in creating environments that maximize student learning. School systems across our nation routinely develop multiple types of plans—strategic plans, site-based plans, school improvement plans, capital improvement plans, and short-term planning initiatives. Planning is a crucial element for the success of any school system, and careful planning for flexible, innovative, and effective classrooms is imperative.

There are many important components in developing effective plans: beliefs, mission, parameters, strengths, weaknesses, organizational design, competition, external analysis, critical issues, objectives, strategies, and priority actions (Cook, 2001). As educational planners consider 21st century learning environments, they must remember that these spaces are instrumental in carrying forward the values and purposes of the community and district. Educational planning does have its challenges: inadequate funding, lack of commitment, and the inflexible nature of plans (Hambright & Diamantes, 2004). However, where plans are thoughtfully designed and carefully implemented, students, parents, teachers, and school leaders see numerous positive effects.

Many in the education sector would identify 21st century learning spaces as a planning priority for school systems. While districts devote great energy in developing high quality plans, the particulars of classroom design are often left to the site-based plans of individual schools. We know that the quality of a site-based plan can lead to positive implementation outcomes (Strunk, Marsh, Bush-Mecenas, & Duque, 2016). Consequently, planning for 21st century learning spaces must be a priority in our carefully crafted site-based plans. Planning for 21st century learning spaces must incorporate a number of considerations, especially the instructional aims of teachers.

Creating effective 21st century learning spaces that support a wide-range of instructional practices requires a great deal of foresight, deliberation, and action. We must look at what teachers are doing (or want to do) in their instructional spaces and design or retrofit classrooms to accommodate these teaching strategies. Many instructional options today are dependent on spaces such as outdoor classrooms, makerspaces, and multipurpose rooms. Teachers rely on access to technology, and they should be able to arrange their spaces in numerous configurations to support their instruction. Therefore, educational planners must consider the number of instructional approaches teachers utilize when developing facility plans for districts and schools. Ultimately, our purpose for developing 21st century learning spaces is to impact positively learning outcomes for students.

Schools have a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to developing learning spaces that support the many needs of students and teachers. Accordingly, the need to develop 21st century learning spaces in a school’s planning process should not be ignored.



Cook, W. J. (2000). Strategics: the art and science of holistic strategy. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books.

Hambright, G., & Diamantes, T. (2004). Definitions, Benefits, and Barriers of K-12 Educational Strategic Planning. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 31(3), 233–239.

Strunk, K. O., Marsh, J. A., Bush-Mecenas, S. C., & Duque, M. R. (2016). The Best Laid Plans An Examination of School Plan Quality and Implementation in a School Improvement Initiative. Educational Administration Quarterly, 52(2), 259–309.


T. R. Dunlap is a research associate for the George Washington University in the Education Facilities Clearinghouse. After having worked as a foreign language educator, he now researches topics relevant to education facilities and their improvements.

FEMA developed the Best Available Refuge Area (BARA) Checklist for the first edition of FEMA P-361 to use in assessing a building’s susceptibility to damage from extreme-wind events such as tornadoes and hurricanes. The checklist evaluation process guides registered design professionals (architects and engineers) in identifying potential refuge areas at a site with one or more buildings. The term “best available refuge area” (or “BARA”) refers to an area in an existing building that has been deemed by a registered design professional as likely to protect building occupants during an extreme-wind event better than other areas in the building when a safe room is not available.

The BARA should be regarded as an interim measure only until a safe room can be available to building occupants. A safe room is a hardened structure specifically designed and constructed to the guidelines specified in FEMA P-320, Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room for Your Home or Small Business and FEMA P-361, Safe Rooms for Tornadoes and Hurricanes: Guidance for Community and Residential Safe Rooms.

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EPA, 2016. Numerous sources of funding are available to create and support healthy, productive school environments for students and staff. The links on this page describe how to find a variety of funding sources, including grants, tax credits, loans and others.

View webpage.

By Angel Ford

School facility conditions are tied to student attitudes, behaviors, and success, therefore little argument can be raised that school facility upkeep and construction should be a consideration in educational planning and funding decisions. Students in buildings in poor condition perform lower than students in buildings in adequate or exceptional condition. Fortunate or privileged students often attend beautiful, clean, well resourced schools and unfortunate or underprivileged students often attend unattractive, dirty, and even unsafe schools.

In the book Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, Carter and Welner (2013) discuss how closing the opportunity gap would lead to closing the achievement gap. The achievement gap appears in standardized testing, dropout rates, college readiness, and general academic achievement.

Carter and Welner (2013) compile essays from a number of authors tackling the issues of inequity in educational opportunities and link these inequities directly to the achievement gap. The authors of the essays discuss concerns about housing disparities, preschool enrollment disparities, teacher quality disparities, resource disparities, and others. Along this vein, I would like to suggest that the condition of educational facilities be considered as part of the resource disparities and, thus, a part of the opportunity gap.

Over half of the schools in our nation are in need of repairs to be considered in satisfactory condition (NCES, 2014). The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE, 2013) grade American educational facilities with a “D”. This means that a high percentage of students are attending classes in buildings that are subpar and even, in some cases, considered unsafe. Twenty-nine percent of school buildings have safety features in need of repair (NCES, 2014).

Unfortunately, school buildings that are in need of repair are often in the poorest districts, where students already contend with variables predicting lower academic success. Students in poor districts are often those that are lower on the socioeconomic scale, students who are English language learners, students with disabilities, students who are minorities, students who are homeless, or students in foster care (NEA, 2015). The condition of the school buildings they attend appear to be one more challenge against their achievement.

Could improving the places where these less fortunate students learn and equalizing the opportunities that each student has, improve their academic success? I am not saying that improving school buildings would automatically solve the academic achievement gap. Of course, this is an over-simplified solution and many variables need to be considered, but this is one aspect of education in our nation that we know is not equitable and that we know has an impact. We know this from both qualitative and quantitative research, from both a breakdown of isolated variables and a holistic picture. The condition of school facilities should not be ignored when looking at the achievement gap.

Angel Ford is a research associate with Education Facilities Clearinghouse.  Dr. Ford actively participates in research and content management of the EFC website.  

American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). (2013). 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers. Retrieved from

Carter, P. L., & Welner, K. G. (2013). Closing the opportunity gap: What America must do to give every child an even chance. Oxford University Press.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2014). Condition of America’s public schools facilities. Retrieved from

DeJong & Craig

How many students can a building accommodate?  This question often arises, and in the development of a facility plan, it can be one of he most debated issues.  The answer to this question can impact the need for constructing new buildings as well as additions and can have a profound impact on revenue especially if projects are funded through state or other agencies.

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