School building sticker shock

Regional cooperation: Systems should work together to contain inflationary construction costs.

May 02, 2001

THE IDEA made perfect sense.

Baltimore and Howard counties were building high schools. Why not share designs and contain costs, especially at a time when construction prices are rising astronomically?

A school for 1,500 students cost $24 million just two years ago; it could total $40 million this year. Construction prices are soaring as the demand for quality contractors and building material far exceeds the supply.

Each year, the state's Interagency Committee for State Public School Construction estimates the square-foot price of building and renovating schools. The square-foot cost was about $94 in 1999 and $122 last year. When the committee releases its estimate in a few weeks, the expected amount: between $140 and $160 a square foot.

Or more. When Anne Arundel public schools officials opened bids for work on Mayo Elementary, the square-foot cost came in at a staggering $180.

Construction prices are beyond comprehension for school systems around the region, even as the demand for new and refurbished buildings goes unabated.

In Baltimore County, officials sought a partial solution to these sharply rising costs -- as well as their time constraints -- when planning New Town High in Owings Mills. County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and his finance director, Fred J. Homan, tried to buy the Howard County school system's designs for Reservoir High School, under construction in Fulton.

Design costs aren't included in the state's construction estimates, and the savings were not a remedy for inflation. But saving $1.4 million -- likely in this case -- would not have been insignificant.

Baltimore County's idea was terrific but too late.

Howard school officials rejected the deal because they were concerned about liability issues. Those are legitimate concerns because Howard officials hadn't initially discussed a potential design-sharing arrangement with their architectural team.

But this is the kind of regional cooperation that can save money and solve problems.

Rising school construction costs show no sign of slowing.

The situation cries out for cooperation among county executives and school superintendents. But they can't wait until planning hits the late stages as school officials did in Baltimore and Howard counties.

County money managers should start joint school-construction planning pronto.

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