Big Squeeze: Why a School Can Cost $100 Million

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007

Howard County parent Cindy Ardinger has long pushed for a big fix at 40-year-old Mount Hebron High School, where the hallways are cramped, the walls are cracked and wastewater has backed up in classrooms. But tearing down the school and building anew, school officials say, could cost $90 million.

Ardinger's reaction: "Are you crazy? Why is it so expensive to build a school here?"

Actually, it's quite costly to build a school anywhere in Maryland. The good old days of six or seven years ago, when a high school could be built for $40 million, are a quickly receding memory.

Double-digit annual increases in school construction costs have left the price about $240 per square foot for a new building and site development, more than double what it was in 2000. Elementary schools that once could be built for $10 million now cost $20 million, and middle schools carry price tags of $30 million to $35 million.

A big high school with a capacity of 2,000 or more approaches $100 million, far more than community college buildings and comparable to a major hospital wing.

School officials say the expense has increased because of a variety of factors, including competition for contractors, higher construction material costs and more elaborate building features.

"You have to convince everybody because the numbers seem to be so unreal," said Charles L. Wineland, assistant superintendent of support services for the Charles County schools. "Many times I hear nothing is worth that kind of money."

Building schools is a sharpening financial burden for the state government and even wealthy counties with hefty tax revenue. The General Assembly allocated $401.8 million for fiscal 2008 for school construction statewide, a significant bump up from the current year's total, $323 million. But a chunk of the increase just covers escalating costs.

State officials, stymied by Maryland's overall funding shortfall, warned local leaders not to expect such largess in the future.

After Howard officials did a double take on the Mount Hebron estimates, they realized they faced a similar dilemma at three more aging high schools. With the revenue from a local excise tax for school construction nearly tapped out, officials are hinting that a new tax might be needed.

"I'm keeping my mind open to everything," said County Executive Ken Ulman (D). He added that the climbing costs are a prime conversation topic with fellow county executives.

"It really is high on their list," he said. "Schools are by far the largest proportion of any of our capital budgets."

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