Perry Street Preparatory Charter School occupies a stately brick building on a quiet, leafy street in Northeast Washington, DC. Built in 1900 and fronting a grassy park, the school “is where parents envision sending their kids,” says Kelly Smith, Perry Street’s Director of Operations. Perry Street’s mission is to serve students of color from low-income families and the school attracts students from all eight wards of the city. Even so, Smith notes, Perry Street is a small school, where everyone knows everyone else. “Even if families don’t live nearby, they still view our building as a cornerstone of their community,” Smith explains.
However appealing they may be, century-old buildings require repair and renovation from time to time, and Perry Street’s is no exception. By late 2019, school leaders identified a set of necessary upgrades to make the school safer and more accessible. Smith knew she needed help with the project. An earlier renovation project that did not go smoothly left her wanting a different experience this time. “For this project, I needed more options,” she recalls.
Independent charter schools like Perry Street Prep are self-contained entities. They do not belong to larger networks or school systems, so they lack access to the in-house construction and facilities management infrastructure that public school systems have. Smith explains, “Education is always going to be my focus. I know about school compliance and laws, but there is this whole other world of permitting. I know I can’t be an expert on it, and no school leader should be.” Having worked on a few school facilities projects during her career, however, Smith understands “the power that I have is that I know what I don’t know…We need experts and that is where working with SchoolPrint was really helpful."
Fortunately, Smith was already connected with one of SchoolPrint’s experts, Lee Chaffin, who joined the team as an advisor to guide the new renovation project. Smith’s primary goal was to attract a competitive set of bids so she would have a choice of contractors to hire, rather than settling for a single bidder. Smith notes that it can be hard for schools to attract bids: “Contractors don’t really want to work with schools. There are a lot of people involved in the decision making process, we don’t have a lot of money, we’re very particular” and their work is subject to the expected wear and tear of high spirited students.
Through Chaffin’s relationships and knowledge of the facilities landscape, SchoolPrint helped Smith garner the interest of multiple contractors. He helped build connections from both sides, bringing Smith reliable contractors to bid on Perry Street’s project while also clarifying the project’s value for contractors.
Chaffin also helped Smith make sense of the bids she received. “Once I got these bids back, he went through them and helped me figure out what people had or had not included in their bids,” Smith explained. Some contractors included demolition or permitting costs while others omitted them. Smith would once have been inclined to overlook these inconsistencies or do the work to solve them, explaining, “For schools, we are in such a mindset of teaching that we are really comfortable walking into situations where learning is needed, but it’s not the best use of time.” She needed assurance that the bidding contractors understood what would be expected of them and how to execute it. Chaffin worked with Smith to create a standard format for responses and gave her follow-up questions to ask “so we could end up with same universe of information from everyone.” That allowed Smith to compare the bids accurately and fairly.
Working with SchoolPrint made the new project a very different experience for Smith. Chaffin “was willing to ask the questions, sit in the meetings, and vet my conclusions. He was a thought partner.” As a result, Smith received five bids for the new project, compared to a single bid for her earlier project. Smith worked with Chaffin to perform due diligence and select a winning bid, and Chaffin reviewed the contract before Perry Street awarded it. The permitting process is already underway and Smith hopes to see the project complete before the new school year begins in the fall.
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