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Why New Schools Cost So Much

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Anne Arundel County has become a poster child for ways to save money on school construction.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot were already great fans of how the Anne Arundel County system had, years ago, installed window air conditioners in older schools to handle hot days. The two cited this example to prod (and finally demand) that schools in Baltimore County and City do the same, even though it might cost $9,000 per classroom to upgrade the electrical systems.

Anne Arundel schools are also held up as an example of saving on construction dollars by using repeat designs on school buildings.

That’s among the reasons the Maryland Association of Counties held an all-day seminar in late June at one of the county’s newest schools, Rolling Knolls Elementary, which is located in Annapolis off of Generals Highway.

Rolling Knolls is the 11th elementary school in the county to use a similar design. It replaced a 54-year-old building with seven modular units added to handle overcrowding; the old structure was being torn down as county and state officials arrived for the conference at the new school on the same site.

The new school is 84,000 square feet, more than twice the size of the crowded old school, and cost $36 million, twice what was estimated in a 2011 study for the school system.

No Corners Cut

There was no evidence that any corners had been cut in building the new school. The two-story school was bright and airy, with natural lighting from large windows in most of the rooms. There was a science lab and a computer lab, neither standard features in older schools. Kindergarten classrooms had individual bathrooms to eliminate the problem of 5-year-olds making the long trek to the common bathrooms.

Anne Arundel uses its schools as community centers, rather than building separate facilities, so the gym/“cafetorium” are constructed with public use in mind after school hours.

Architect Steve Parker, whose firm, Grimm + Parker, designed Rolling Knolls, said the use of repeat designs saves money in several ways. First, it saves 5% to 15% on architectural and engineering plans, but this only applies if the same firm is using its previous layout. It generally saves on construction costs, because the contractor is familiar with the requirements of the design — but again, only if the contractor has done a similar building before.

One of the biggest advantages, Parker said, is that the teachers and community of a proposed new school can actually walk through a similar building and give their input. Using repeat designs can also improve energy usage, based on the experience of previous schools.

A major proviso is that the site of the new school has to be able to accommodate the repeat design. Is the new site flat or sloping? Is it big enough?

The demands of the land can also change the orientation of the building to the sun. If it does that by more than 15 degrees on the compass, the heating/air conditioning units and the window treatment may need to be redesigned, potentially increasing costs.

To Save More Money

Ultimately, it is unlikely substantial amounts can be saved on building new schools because more is being asked of a modern school building, said David Lever, executive director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction. Lever has resigned under pressure from Hogan and Franchot, who wanted him to find ways to cut the costs of new schools and fix Baltimore’s air conditioning problem.

According to Lever, the factors driving more space include the following:

  • Universal all-day kindergarten, and growing pre-kindergarten in many jurisdictions
  • More special needs students requiring Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and the rooms to implement them
  • Early childhood intervention space
  • More “itinerant” support staff, teachers and counselors
  • More computer labs and science labs, even at the elementary level
  • More storage space because “There’s simply too much stuff in classrooms”
  • Oversized gymnasiums for community recreation services
  • Fire codes that have become more stringent

“This is not frivolous,” Lever said. “This is not adding space simply for the sake of adding space.”

Similar trends are increasing the size of schools and construction costs around the country, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, in Washington, D.C. She said there were also new health and safety standards, smaller class sizes requiring more rooms and increased security.

Other panels at the all-day session said that construction costs are likely to continue rising due to the coming worker shortage in the building trades and fluctuating material prices based on worldwide demand.

Comparing Costs

Countering these reasons for higher school construction costs, Hogan had Lever’s agency do a comparison of building the Monarch Global Academy, a privately-managed school run with public funds, in the Laurel area of Anne Arundel, with the costs of a standard public school. Rolling Knolls Elementary was chosen.

Monarch wound up costing almost $10 million less — $185 a square foot, compared to $253 a square foot for Rolling Knolls.

The major differences were that Monarch did not have to follow state design and procurement standards, and it did not have to pay the prevailing wage for the construction workers, basically saving about 12% overall, the difference between union and non-union wage scales.

Monarch also used pre-engineered steel construction and interior gypsum wallboard partitions, much like a standard office building, instead of masonry and steel frame construction and masonry interior walls, as was done at Rolling Knolls.

Broader Questions

Lever raised some broader questions about the schools Maryland is building.

“Are we expecting our schools to do too much?

“Are we using all spaces in schools efficiently? (How many sit empty much of the time?)

“Are we building in flexibility for future change?

“Are we considering non-facility options, such as virtual classrooms?”

These questions and the other cost issues are increasingly important in Anne Arundel as County Executive Steve Schuh pushes for the building of more, and smaller, high schools.