Cost of new schools decried

Local expenses seem higher than nearby counties'

`It's ridiculous, it's ridiculous'

County executive forming panel to study practices

Anne Arundel

May 12, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

School construction costs have risen so sharply in Anne Arundel County that a middle school there costs millions more than some high schools elsewhere, and elementary schools have price tags approaching $20 million.

"It's ridiculous, it's ridiculous," said Anne Arundel school board member Paul G. Rudolph, who has watched the cost of a new elementary school more than double during his six years on the board.

County Executive Janet S. Owens also is frustrated - so much so that she is forming a blue-ribbon commission to investigate school construction practices and costs.

"Every year, the cost of building a new school - be it elementary, middle or high school - continues to climb out of control," Owens said in her budget address this month. She also said she is "not confident" that the school system has done all it can to control costs.

Particularly alarming to some officials is the $41 million the school system plans to spend for Marley Middle School in Glen Burnie. Carroll and Baltimore counties are building high schools for $35 million.

Owens is expected to name the five members of the commission soon - perhaps this week - and ask them to compare costs in Anne Arundel with those in nearby counties. She worries that some school construction projects are being delayed because the cost to build schools has increased so much.

The concern is not unique to Anne Arundel County. Harford County formed a commission in February to study school costs. And the state has taken note, raising the estimated cost of school construction during the past three years from $106 per square foot to $150.

The cost in Anne Arundel is even higher - $158 per square foot. School officials defend that figure as necessary to build high-quality schools that will last for decades, and to provide children with the services they need.

For example, Glen Burnie's Glendale Elementary, which opened in January, has three "reading resource" rooms where teachers work with children in small groups. It also has two rooms for speech and language specialists to work with children, two music rooms, and every classroom has a bathroom. The school cost $14.8 million and has a capacity of 509 children.

In comparison, Baltimore County's New Town Elementary in Owings Mills, which also opened this year, cost $13.3 million and has a capacity of 752 children. The school has one reading resource room and one music room. Classrooms do not have their own bathrooms.

`There's an overkill'

Rudolph said this tells him that the instructional people in Anne Arundel are driving construction. "Instruction wants this and wants that - there's an overkill," he said. "Instruction and the board together are putting in a lot of extras, and it's driving up the cost."

Another key difference between Anne Arundel schools and other jurisdictions': Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties build elementary school classrooms at between 750 and 800 square feet. Anne Arundel builds them at 900.

Roomier, nicer

But school officials make no apologies for that.

"Do 25 kids fit in a 900- square-foot classroom better than in an 800-square-foot classroom? I'd have to believe yes," said Ralph Luther, director of construction and facilities for Anne Arundel schools. "And is the educational environment better in 900 square feet? I'd have to say probably so. We're in the business of education."

Among the new school projects that received money in Owens' budget: Seven Oaks Elementary at $19.4 million and Marley Elementary at $19.1 million. The funds will be provided over several years.

County officials note that when school costs rise, fewer schools can be built. Owens said some projects had to be delayed because a few expensive schools were gobbling up the money.

"You're driving schools that are in the pipeline further and further back," Rudolph said.

He said one factor driving up costs - besides larger classrooms and the board's adding "extras" - is that the school system doesn't use the architect who designs its prototype school to design the actual school. That means the new architect for each school has to go back and certify the plans, costing time and money, Rudolph said.

Taking a close look

The commission will study construction costs in Anne Arundel and other counties and try to devise a bottom-line, apples-to-apples comparison - something that has eluded the school system.

"We don't know that the cost is higher here," said Gregory V. Nourse, associate superintendent for business. Five years ago, he said, the school system went to Howard, Montgomery and Queen Anne's counties seeking their construction costs.

"We could not get figures from anybody," Nourse said. But, he added, "We know that other school systems build cheaper schools than we do because they have taken the tack of using cheaper materials."

Anne Arundel schools have brick exteriors and concrete block walls inside - necessary to withstand the beating children will give the school, Nourse said. Some systems use cheaper wallboard that often needs to be patched, he said.

"You either pay now or you pay later," Luther said. "Some people buy Jaguars and some people buy Colts."

Asked whether that meant Anne Arundel was building Jaguars for its students, he quickly responded, "No, but we're not building Colts, either."

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