Big Squeeze: Why a School Can Cost $100 Million
Contracting and Material Prices Are Curbing Plans

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."

In Anne Arundel County, school officials say they are worried that they will fall behind on an ambitious decade-long plan to spend $1.5 billion for renovations and new schools. The plan is driven in part by an expected influx of students as the planned expansion at Fort Meade hits its peak in 2011, said Alan Szachnowicz, acting director of facilities.

However, County Executive John R. Leopold (R), a fiscal conservative, wants to trim the school system's requested construction budget by $20 million to $131.8 million, with further reductions in future years.

"The storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, for sure," Szachnowicz said.

In Prince George's County, the school system is building elementary and high schools in growing areas and renovating dozens of older schools. School officials have managed to pursue these objectives because they have strong backing from the county executive and powerful state legislators. State funding pays for two-thirds of the system's construction costs, far more than in neighboring counties.

"Our state delegation has really brought home the most school construction money of any jurisdiction. We've been lucky in that regard," said John L. White, the school system's communications officer.

There are many reasons why schools have become so pricey, starting with the fact that a lot of building is going on in this prosperous region in the private and public sectors.

"We're competing for the same contractor pool," said David G. Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program. Builders face labor shortages and often won't bid on a school if they can't line up enough subcontractors.

Construction materials -- metals, concrete, wallboard -- have become scarcer in a global economy. Then there's the climbing price of fuel.

"If we're seeing an increase at the pump as citizens, they're also seeing it at the construction site," Lever said.

Contractors can also be scared off by the unforgiving schedules that accompany school projects. A system might have to redistrict its students and rework its bus routes in anticipation of a new school, and parents might have to change commuting and day-care schedules. It all means that "the pressure to complete is extremely intense," Lever said, with big fines charged daily if contractors miss the deadlines.

There are also elevated expectations for what's necessary in a school. High schools especially have become elaborate facilities, with specialized classroom and studio spaces, new security features, the latest information technology and state-of-the-art science equipment.

In Charles, school officials are talking to the county commissioners about adding a planetarium to a planned seventh high school, which could push the price to $130 million.

In Montgomery County, where enrollment has temporarily flattened, school officials are moving away from building schools to renovating older facilities and eliminating hundreds of portable classrooms.

The wealthy county has some cushion against climbing costs, with an impact tax and part of its recordation tax providing revenue for schools, said Richard G. Hawes, director of the Department of Facilities Management.

Still, the county has found that its requests for more state construction money have routinely taken heavy hits.

"We very rarely meet with success," Hawes said.

"If we have normal construction market increases, we'll be okay," he added. "If it starts spiking again at 10, 15, 20 percent, our remedy will be to push projects out of the CIP," or capital improvement program. "We'll just do less, basically."

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