Why Are School Construction Costs So High?

I don’t know the answer but I really think this is a topic worth exploring.  And my attention has been focused on the question by a local debate over building a new high school in Fayetteville, AR.

What I do know is that according to the 34th Annual Official Education Construction Report the median new school built in 2007 cost $188 per sq. ft. for elementary schools, $211 per sq. ft. for middle schools, and $175 per sq. ft. for high schools. By comparison, the median cost per square foot to build a three story factory in 2007 ranged from $83 in Winston-Salem to $136 in NY City, with most major metro areas hovering around $100 per square foot.  Schools cost almost double what it costs to build a three-story factory and even more than what it costs to build houses. 

Why does it cost so much?  Part of the answer is that schools are more likely to be mandated to have Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), which require the use of unionized construction workers.  Schools built with PLAs cost about $30 more per square foot according to studies conducted in Connecticut and Massachusetts. 

Some of the higher cost can be attributed to gold-plating in the school building codes.  In Florida, for example, the increase in school building code requirements following Hurricane Andrew added $500,000 to the cost of each elementary school and $2 million for each high school over a decade ago.  Every school was expected to withstand 150 mph winds rather than 121 mph and to double the thickness of the concrete roof to 4 inches.  Of course, it’s always hard to argue against the safety of school buildings, but remember that kids are not in schools when hurricanes hit.  Schools are usually closed a day or two before a hurricane is expected.  It’s true that schools may be used as shelters, but not every school needs to be a shelter.  Requiring that every school meet the highest standard for any building is a way to exploit our concern for kids’ safety to drive school construction costs up.

In addition to the price per square foot, there is also the question of how many square feet we need.  The average new school has between 100 and 158 square feet per student, depending on the grade level.  But state requirements for square footage are increasing based on the argument that “schools need more space than they did 20 years ago.”  That may be, but some states, such as Minnesota, require as many as 200 to 320 sq. ft. per student for small high schools.  The Har-Ber high school that I described in my last post has 198.25 square feet per student.  At about 200 sq. ft. per student we could teach a class of 25 kids in a 5,000 square foot mansion.  And at an average cost of $23,873 per student for new high school construction, we could build that 5,000 square foot mansion for those 25 students for around $600K. 

Not bad.  Now if only we could teach students well-enough so that they could earn their own $600K house.

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6 Responses to Why Are School Construction Costs So High?

  1. Patrick says:

    In my junior year of high school the building (which was 26 years old at the time) was remolded. The inside of the building was completely gutted and the even added in some sky lights. As our school was being remodeled us students had our classes in trailers that were set up just off the football field.

    Our cafeteria was a circus tent and for most of the time our gym was…surprise, outside.

    We were called the “Tabb trailer trash” that year.

    I think it was the best year of high school I ever had. I think many students thought that too.

    Of course the administration was prone to extreme dorkyness (is that spelt with a “y” or an “i”?) such as naming the allies in between trailers, like “Learning Lane.”

    My grades even improved and I ended up on highest honor roll for the first time (thanks to the fact that I had a 20/90 vision and when your classroom is in a trailer everyone sits in the front…hey, I could see the chalkboard).

    It looked kinda like this: http://www.nortexmodular.com/Projects2002/Cedar_Ridge_Charter_School/cedar_ridge.htm

  2. matthewladner says:

    The district I live in built 3 schools for $58m last year. One of them is walking distance from my house. Is it just me, or is $20m for an elementary school more than a little pricey?

  3. Ten years ago I got a year’s worth of Hawaii DOE school construction contracts from the Hawaii Department of Accounting and General Services (DAGS). I added the cost of all classroom construction and divided by the number of roms. The cost per room was over $200,000. This sounds high for rows of 30x40x10 foot boxes atached two or three high, but I do not know. I would like to know what private schools pay for classroom construction. We know from the federal investigation of the Hawaii DOT/Airports Division contracts how the competitive bid process failed: insiders took turns submitting the winning bids.

    When a Republican became Governor for the first time in over 40 years, with the power to appoint the director of DAGS, the Democrat-controlled Legislature transferred authority over DOE construction to a bureau within the Department of Education,, over which the Governor exercises no control.

    Senator Norman SaKamoto (D) is chair of the Senate Education Committee. His construction company does a lot of work with the Hawaii DOE.

    http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/nj/press/files/pdffiles/CallawayMistercomplaintFINAL.pdf

  4. Greg Forster says:

    If you did dig up how much private schools pay for construction, the union would probably respond that private school buildings are made out of flattened carboard boxes stuck together with glue made from asbestos.

  5. I thought almost $200 per square foot was expensive for school construction costs, but Lisa Snell points out that a LA school was being built for $1,000 per square foot. Wow! See http://educationweak.blogspot.com/2008/11/why-is-school-construction-so-expensive.html

  6. r licht says:

    Bribes and kickbacks.
    Simple as that. Union projects overseen by unaccountable bureaucrats have massive graft costs.
    Look at the wealth accumulated by unpaid school boards and moderately paid school administrators, not to mention the union bosses involved (who have no-show jobs paid by the taxpayer).
    The published estimated costs for a generic high school in Colorado Springs is $15 to $19M depending on whether union labor is used. Our high school cost $45M. Tell me someone did not get rich.

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