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.