Education Funding

Merging Forces Hike School Construction Costs

By Joetta L. Sack — May 03, 2005 2 min read
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States seeking to rein in school construction budgets are running up against the fact that lofty goals for facilities combined with the rising costs of materials and real estate continue to drive up the price tags of new and renovated schools.

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“It definitely has gotten more expensive to build schools,” said Mary Filardo, the founder and executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group for better school facilities.

Districts across the country are seeing significant increases in construction expenses as the cost of nearly all materials, particularly steel, concrete, and copper, continue to rise.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks and indexes the selling prices for a sample of building materials, including steel and lumber, the price for that sample increased by a total of 10 percent from January 2003 to January 2005.

Preliminary data show a slight deceleration, to 8.2 percent, by the end of March of this year. Joseph Kowal, an economist with the BLS, said the index “gives you a flavor of what’s happened to prices for material and products in construction.”

That flavor is a bitter one for officials in the 114,000-student Wake County, N.C., school district, which has struggled to build schools quickly enough for its growing enrollment. The district expects to have about 191,000 students in 2020.

Sheri A. Green, the district’s supervisor of facility planning, estimates that materials costs have risen between 25 and 30 percent in the past year in her area, which includes Raleigh. As a result, some projects are being built in phases, she said.

“We have yet to absolutely decide against doing any work, but that is something we might have to consider in this economy and with materials being so high,” Ms. Green said.

Several other factors are driving up costs.

Finding affordable land for schools has become a major challenge in urban districts. Many districts must pay to relocate residents and decontaminate building sites because of environmental problems.

New Jersey, which is in the midst of an $8.6 billion project to remodel and rebuild schools in its poorest districts, is finding few plots of land available in many areas targeted for construction. The state’s School Construction Corp. has commissioned architectural plans for each site because the locations are so different in size and shape that schools must be designed individually.

“You often have a footprint that doesn’t lend itself to a cookie-cutter approach,” said Joan Ponessa, the research director for the Newark-based Education Law Center.

More Demands

Further, more states and districts are pushing for community-friendly school buildings that can accommodate other activities, such as senior citizens’ centers, health clinics, and neighborhood meetings. But that goal often means that buildings must be larger or have additional features, which can add to costs, said Ms. Filardo.

And some states and districts increasingly are pushing for sustainable—or environmentally friendly—features. While many of the costs will be recovered through lower energy bills and maintenance expenses over time, the prices for specialized designs and materials can be higher.

For example, Washington has enacted a law setting new sustainability-based building standards for all state and school buildings. The law, which state officials said was the first of its kind, requires new facilities be designed to lower energy and water use. Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, signed the bill on April 8.

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