How to Find the Right Construction Management Partner for School Building Projects

Published: Fall 2023

School districts that choose to invest in buildings and facilities provide students and staff with greater safety, security, and accessibility, while optimizing the learning environment. A collaborative and transparent approach to managing construction projects is critical to achieving success. That’s why many Illinois districts have transitioned away from simply finding contractors who can complete a job to developing true partnerships and have begun hiring a construction manager (CM) for their capital programs.  

The construction management delivery method creates a partnership between the contractor, the architect, and the district from day one of a project, which can streamline the transition from design to construction. An experienced CM’s input on design, constructability, cost estimates, and scheduling helps save time and ensures that the district gets the best value for their construction budget. 

Taking full advantage of this delivery method requires school districts to choose the right CM. For nearly 30 years, F.H. Paschen has completed over 1,200 education projects worth over $2 billion in Illinois and across the country. Along the way, we’ve identified five key characteristics that define a strong partnership between a school district and CM: 

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Aligning on the District-Wide Vision

First, the district needs to determine the best CM for the job. The key is to look for a CM with experience and capabilities aligned with the district’s vision for building style, function, cost, and other key elements. The CM should be able to demonstrate its expertise through examples of similar completed projects and experience working through grant funding and/or assembling a referendum plan. 

Once the right CM is identified, the district and CM can move from a project-based model to a program-wide partnership, streamlining operations and ensuring consistent results. The two parties can work together to develop a program that’s in line with the district’s overall vision – and its budget.  

In 2018, Community Consolidated School District 93 in Carol Stream, Illinois, brought F.H. Paschen in as CM for several concurrent projects to turn school libraries into modern innovation centers. That experience forged a strong partnership between F.H. Paschen and CCSD 93 that continues to this day, with projects such as a STEM Wing Addition at Jay Stream Middle School and renovations of the Western Trails Elementary School and Cloverdale Elementary School. While each project is unique, CCSD 93’s long-term relationship with F.H. Paschen means they have a partner who is committed to getting the job done right, every time.  

Managing Risk and Reducing Administrative Burden

Some districts use their CM in a consultative role, where the CM manages the various subcontractors but leaves the building owner responsible for handling contracts and overseeing the costs and timeline. However, in many cases, hiring a Construction Manager at Risk (CMAR) may provide districts with more value. In the CMAR model, the CM provides a guaranteed maximum price and completion date, taking on all the financial risk and managing all subcontractor and vendor relationships.  

This is particularly beneficial for districts with limited staff and capacity to manage a capital program because the CM can help manage administrative tasks, procurement processes, project management, and contractual responsibilities. 

In the CMAR model, the CM can also use its experience to add value to the subcontractor and vendor selection process. For example, F.H. Paschen regularly vets potential subcontractors by examining each firm’s revenues, references, and experience with similar projects to ensure they can do the job at their proposed cost. F.H. Paschen will also source local, diverse, and district-preferred subcontractors who have prior experience working in the community.  

Providing Total Transparency

A CM with expertise in the education sector understands the fiscal responsibility that district decision-makers owe their taxpayers. To that end, the CM should provide total transparency regarding schedules, scopes, and budgets. There should be no “behind the curtain” processes – in fact, there shouldn’t be a curtain at all. In a strong partnership, the district will have visibility into everything the CM sees, especially regarding cost and scope. 

The district should also be able to understand the qualifications of each subcontractor. When F.H. Paschen acts as a CM, we assess designs upfront for constructability, analyze potential risks, and provide the district with a clear rationale for our selection. Following our evaluation process, we are confident that the subcontractors we select are not only capable of completing the work but provide the best value for the district. 

Working to Accelerate Timelines

In educational construction, where projects often depend on expiring grants or take place on critical schedules, CMs must work creatively to ensure that work takes place quickly and with minimal disruption to regular operations. The right CM understands the urgency of time-sensitive renovations and will communicate with district stakeholders to ensure the schedule fits their needs.  

One of the advantages of the CM model is the option to phase design deliverables early in the engagement. With this approach, F.H. Paschen is able to fast-track bidding for portions of the project while working with the architect to finalize other elements of the design. This allows us to shift the schedule of long-lead items to align with expedited schedules. For example, we may start building a foundation while developing plans for later-stage elements, like mechanical systems. We can also implement phased construction, which allows us to minimize the disruption to operations. A phased approach to opening classrooms and facilities is achievable through a collaborative partnership between the district and its construction manager.  

Tackling Critical Projects, No Matter the Size

School districts are constantly evolving, and they need facilities that can evolve with them. For every once-in-a-generation new school, dozens of smaller renovations and routine upgrades are needed over the years. The ideal CM partner should be willing and able to handle this wide range of projects.  

In our work with Illinois schools, we’ve fostered strong relationships by tackling new construction, mid-size additions and renovations, and even smaller projects like building secure entryways, upgrading HVAC systems and replacing roofs and flooring. F.H. Paschen gives every project, no matter how small, the same level of planning, communication, and commitment to quality.  

The Value of the Right School District CM Partner

The right CM partner will understand the district’s vision and priorities, maintain total transparency throughout the process, bring in teams that represent the diversity of the community, and support the district through projects big and small. At the end of the day, the right CM can deliver value at every stage of the process. This frees up school districts to focus on their most important stakeholders: students, families and faculty.