Malka Borrego: A strategy for facilities

Malka Borrego is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Equitas Academy Charter School network. Through its four campuses, the network is on a mission to provide high-quality, college-ready education to all students in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angles. We recently had a chance to pick her brain about facilities management and creating a strong board of directors. This first piece will focus on the former.

Thriving Schools: What is the biggest mistake schools make in managing their facilities?

Malka: The biggest thing I see in other schools is not connecting a facilities strategy to their overall vision. When you have tighter alignment between the two, I believe you’re able to better serve kids, both operationally and financially. For example, some schools here in California opt to use what’s called Prop 39, providing them with a co-location space from the district. And while this allows a school leader to know their expenses and operate efficiently in the beginning, there is no focus on the long-term. Because this is a 1-year program, a school may be forced to change buildings or schools. That just wouldn’t work for us because we want to stay in our community and build out from there.

Thriving Schools: Let’s discuss the expenses that are included in the facilities budget. Obviously our building is going to be the largest item, but what are some of the other costs that we need to consider?

Malka: It depends. If you’re in the process of opening a school, you need to consider expenses for furniture, equipment, and conversion costs for meeting safety and other compliance laws. When the school is operational, the big items are going to be maintenance, repairs, utilities, and custodial/cleaning supplies. We also set aside 1% for deferred maintenance or expected repairs. For instance, this last weekend we had heavy rains here in Los Angeles that caused leaking in our rooves. Another one of our schools had an issue with the play-area covering starting to fall apart. So we had to schedule in $35,000 for that. We don’t want to be caught off guard by these expenses which is why we budget in deferred maintenance.

Thriving Schools: Clearly, the less money a school is spending on facilities, the more it will have available for educating students. So what number are you targeting, as a percentage of your budget, for the school building?

Malka: We shoot for less than 15%. Our schools need to be running at less than 15% on a per-pupil basis. For us, that works out to be about $1200 per student per year.

Thriving Schools: And what about the other expenditures you previously mentioned – maintenance, utilities, etc. What target do you have for these?

Malka: It’s a very small percentage. I would say around 2%.

Thriving Schools: Okay. Let’s dig into a few of the facilities decisions you have made in expanding Equitas to four campuses. What’s one of the more important decisions you’ve made in this area?

Malka: We’ve waited for the facilities that we really wanted. The reason we’ve done that is because we have a community commitment – this is the neighborhood we’re in and we’re going to be staying here. So when I have wanted a facility and it was too expensive, we had the luxury of time. For example, buildings that were too expensive for us in 2007 and 2008 were facilities that we ended up purchasing in 2011 and 2012. Obviously with how real estate prices were acting, this was a move that saved us a lot of money.

Thriving Schools: Can you give us another example?

Malka: Sure – I’m also working the streets! So that means I’m always on the lookout for new leases and opportunities that aren’t on the market yet. I’m going to be talking to community leaders and financial institutions to see what locations will be available in the near future that would also make for a good school building. I want to know what’s going on behind the scenes so that I already have possible sites lined up when it’s time to open another school. For example, there’s this non-profit that we work with, and at their meetings I’m encouraging them to think the same way. I ask them: What do you know about this building? Who’s the owner of that one? You can’t wait for sites to come on the market before you’re looking to build.

Thriving Schools: Could we get one more example? Perhaps something in that smaller, operational bucket of utilities and repairs?

Malka: Well, I would say that we emphasize strong relationships with our vendors. But we’ve also become more knowledgeable through trial and error and thinking about what we need and what we don’t need. This process needs to be continuous; we’ve recreated the wheel on our process a few times. But I would also say that I use my connections with other school leaders and I get curious about what they’re doing. For example, I was unhappy with the construction of the floors at one of our schools and the demands it was placing on our custodial staff to clean it every day. So I asked other leaders: Where did you get your floor from? Who installed it? How long does it take your custodial staff to clean? I had to get really curious and the result was I got the floor that I wanted. But again, I had to go to another school, get educated, and see how other people were figuring this problem out. And now people come into our school and say, “Wow, great floor!”

Thriving Schools: How did you develop your thinking around facilities management? What would you recommend to other school leaders?

Malka: For me, all of the research I did to get better was on the ground. I would talk to other school leaders to see what they had done. I placed a facilities person on my board and I would ask him questions about what types of facilities would work for a school. I learned a lot by listening to him think and by putting me in touch with other people, like architects. So it really was connecting with those who know the work and repeating the ideas to me until I felt like I got it!

Note: As mentioned above, Malka also gave us her thoughts on creating a strong board of directors. We will be sharing that post a few weeks down the road.