Solution to crowded Carroll schools proposed Modular units may be fast, but they're not cheap

April 07, 1996|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

When local homebuilders said last week that they would consider building schools to help offset the effect of development, people listened.

Carroll County Commissioners have grappled for years with the problem of school crowding, but the issue has come to a head as the county faces a $5 million budget deficit and a rapidly growing school population, driven by residential development.

But don't expect a magic bullet.

Homebuilders say they want to share their expertise, not their money. Among their suggestions: adding modular units to schools, which can be done within months with no heavy construction on site. Building a new school takes two to three years.

"Right now, when we have school overcrowding the only solution is to find a new school site and build a new school," said Greg Dorsey, president of the Carroll County Chapter of the Homebuilders Association. "But there are different ways to look at building schools and solving the overcrowding problem."

School officials say they have considered alternatives to building new schools and have rejected them as unsuitable and not cost-effective in the long run. In Baltimore County, for example, it cost the school district more to put up modular units than to build new schools.

"A quick solution for the homebuilders isn't necessarily the best solution for the school system," said Vernon Smith, the county schools' director of support services.

For their part, County Commissioners say they would welcome more discussion with the builders.

"It's clearly in the builders' interest to see that schools in Carroll County are erected in a timely and economical fashion," said Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown. "I think their input, along with the discussions the commissioners are having with the school system, can be fruitful."

The pace of residential development has strained county

services. But developers say the $4,500 impact fee the county charges for every new home could be spent more effectively to relieve school crowding. They complain that a proposed interim development control ordinance that would ban major new subdivisions for 20 months to rework the county's master plan offers no solutions to school crowding.

Builders support the use of modular additions as an efficient way to ease school crowding in the short term, citing the success of a modular building program in Baltimore County schools.

Builders and Baltimore County school officials describe modular additions as preconstructed units, typically housing six to eight classrooms connected to the school by an enclosed walkway. The units have air-conditioning, heating and plumbing systems.

An Owings Mills developer on a Baltimore County schools task force spearheaded the modular concept. Since July 1994, Baltimore County has built modular additions to 11 elementary schools. The project was completed in a year and cost $13 million.

"I think it's a tremendous success that we could build 2,000 seats -- the equivalent of four elementary schools -- in one year," said Jim Kraft, the manager of capital planning for Baltimore County public schools.

However, Mr. Kraft said the units were not less expensive to build. The per-square-foot cost of the modular additions was approximately $105, compared with the statewide average cost of $92 for school construction.

And questions remain about the durability of the units.

"Ten years from now will the walls and roofs hold up? We don't know," Mr. Kraft said. "Personally, I think the modulars will stand the test of time."

Carroll school officials have concluded that modular additions aren't a logical solution to school crowding because they are not cost-effective and won't hold up in the long term.

"Materials like drywall don't provide the same quality of construction as bricks and mortar," Mr. Smith said.

Rodell E. Phaire, director of facilities planning with Anne Arundel County schools, shares Mr. Smith's view.

"We've looked at this for quite some time now, and our experience has been that there aren't any significant cost savings in modular units," Mr. Phaire said.

In addition to backing the use of modular additions, Mr. Dorsey said local builders would be willing to review school construction plans to identify potential cost savings.

Builders say they can point out features that inflate school construction costs, such as useless architectural flourishes and expensive building materials.

"We'd be glad to show them why these [school] buildings cost so much, from a builder's point of view and help them make changes to build a functional, low-maintenance building that's a good environment for kids to learn in, but not so expensive," Mr. Dorsey said.

Mr. Smith said a panel that included county and school officials, engineers and architects recently completed a study to devise cost-containment strategies for school construction.

"Carroll County builds a basic building that is not laden with frills and fancy amenities," he said.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell said it would be worthwhile for the school system to consider builders' suggestions on school construction, but cautions that the experience and knowledge of school officials can't be discounted.

"I don't want to see outsiders saying the schools haven't been working and then come in with a package of their own designs that probably wouldn't fit," Mr. Dell said.

As school construction costs continue to rise, Mr. Brown said, he is interested in exploring all options, and would like members of the local construction industry to provide the commissioners with specific dollar figures of how much it would cost private developers to build a new school.

"I would suggest that the builders form a consortium to address it in a more economical fashion than the school system has experienced with the traditional method of building," he said. "It's time for everybody to be looking at alternatives."

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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