Why Schools Cost So Much

, Ed Amatetti, 3 Comments

It is time for the State of Maryland to make it a top priority to find ways to build schools more cost-effectively. At the current pace of enrollment, it is expected that more than 30 percent of all Montgomery County schools will be at or over-capacity within the current construction improvements planning (CIP) cycle. Already, 11,000 MCSPS students, mostly elementary children, make the journey in winter coats to 450 portable classrooms.

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Unfortunately, reliable data on school construction in Maryland is difficult to come by. But, it is clear that we can do much better. Anne Arundel County’s new Executive, Steve Schuh, recently noted that in his county “a new high school costs about $425 per square foot.”   In neighboring Howard County, it is about $325 per square foot. Cost data on the recent Richard Montgomery HS “Hilton Hotel-like” renovation in Rockville has been difficult to obtain, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

Compare this to Texas public schools, where the average is about $155 per square foot. In the Houston region, efforts to rein in costs have moved it down to $135. The fast-growing Cy-Fair District in suburban Houston is building schools at $107 per square foot.   In other words, Texas is able to build more than two schools for the cost of one school in Maryland.  Amazingly, Houston’s cost-cutting efforts were spearheaded by citizen-minded construction companies more concerned about the waste and inefficiencies than their profits.

There’s more. North Carolina chimes in at $143 per square foot, while in neighboring Virginia it is $217, close to the average for the Mid-Atlantic region.   According to School Planning and Management Magazine, the nationwide average is a little over $200 per square foot.

Many steps can be taken can be taken to reduce school construction costs. One is to improve the process for designing and building schools. Currently, initial designs are developed by government administrators, with bids solicited based on these designs.   The “design build” method, where constructors bid based on their own designs, within stated parameters, results in more innovative, more creative, and less expensive outcomes. It even reduces the time it takes to build a school. “Life cycle costing” of projects, which analyzes the total cost of a facility through construction, operation, maintenance, upgrading, and disposal), should also be adopted.

Second, costly regulations should be reduced. A seven-state study determined that “prevailing wage” laws (Maryland has them on the books) are the #2 driver of high costs, adding 9.6 percent to the overall cost. “Siting” laws, and accompanying politics, were determined to be the #1 driver, adding 12 percent. This speaks to the comments by Robin Frazier (former Commissioner of Carroll County) that a simple advertisement seeking potential sellers yielded much less expensive sites than the property “pre-selected” by the school board. Unfortunately, politics won the day, and the more expensive site was selected.

Finally, giving local counties bonding authority, thereby bypassing or supplementing state funding, can significantly reduce future funding uncertainties and risks, thereby reducing financing costs. In this regard, we should support Joshua Starr’s effort, and those of other Maryland counties, to obtain bonding authority.

Our county sits between a rock (growing enrollment, over-capacity, and cost inflation) and a hard place (less funding for construction statewide). Better management of school construction costs has to be a priority now.

Edward J. Amatetti is a Maryland certified teacher, a former candidate for the Board of Education in Montgomery County and a former operations auditor for local governments. (eamatetti@comcast.net)