High cost of construction hammers Md. schools

Hurricane Katrina's effects on economy increasing already-high prices

some localities reassessing projects

September 09, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The global economy - and, now, the aftershock of Hurricane Katrina - is conspiring against Allegany County's first new high school in 50 years, renovations for Baltimore's School for the Arts and similar school projects throughout Maryland.

School construction costs have soared 20 percent or more over the past year as prices increase for steel, petroleum-based materials, labor and fuel. And that was before Katrina's impact began to be felt throughout the broader economy.

As a result, officials all over Maryland have been forced to delay, trim and retrench as they begin their annual search for more state and local funding.

"We've seen staggering construction costs. The cost of petroleum products affects almost every aspect of construction," said David Lever, executive director of the state's Public School Construction Program. Costs per square foot are rising to the $210-$225 range from about $176, Lever said.

The increases come at a time when contractors in the Baltimore-Washington area are flush with work and when skilled workers are in short supply for such jobs, which often require night and weekend work to avoid classroom disruptions.

"Across the state, it's significant. It's not just the dollars, it's the availability of subcontractors. It's a huge concern," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state schools superintendent.

Hurricane Katrina is just the latest factor putting pressure on construction costs.

The booming economies of China and India are blamed in part for higher gasoline and diesel prices and for a higher demand for such materials as steel, concrete and gypsum. Last year's Asian tsunami put a squeeze on the market for roofing and other construction materials, Lever said. Even tariffs on Canadian lumber have had an effect.

Construction cost increases have forced a few delays to Maryland school projects and cutbacks on some under way - but could take a bigger toll on future plans, officials said.

At Baltimore's School for the Arts, "we're having to scale things back," said Keith McCormack, senior school system architect.

The school, in the 700 block of Cathedral St., is expanding into an adjoining 29,000-square-foot brownstone and is being renovated - a $24 million public/private partnership. But higher prices could force delays, re-bidding and elimination of "niceties," McCormack said.

Montgomery County, the state's largest school district, spent $40 million more than what it budgeted this fiscal year to pay for inflation in a $186 million building program, said Richard Hawes, director of facilities management for county schools.

But smaller, poorer jurisdictions don't have the extra money to bridge those gaps.

In Allegany County, bids for the new Mountain Ridge High School in Frostburg, originally estimated to cost $31.5 million, came in at $40.5 million. "We've seen unbelievable price increases," said Vince Montana, school construction chief, who said the cost of roof insulation is up 150 percent in 18 months.

The increases forced a two-month delay in the Frostburg project and a re-bidding of the project, minus features like landscaping, stadium parking, grandstands and a softball practice field. New bids came in at $38.6 million, and county officials will seek more state and county funding.

"We haven't built a new high school in the last 50 years," said Montana, who said the building is intended to replace two older buildings as part of a consolidation of schools in economically depressed Allegany.

Garrett County officials are delaying for a year the replacement of two aging boilers that heat Southern Middle School and Broadford Elementary in Oakland, the county seat. Jim Thomas, director of facilities, said the county budgeted $545,000 to replace the 1977 boilers, but the low bid was $867,000.

In Howard County, school officials submitted a capital budget request to the school board for $95.5 million - including $14.7 million for price inflation, officials said.

Raymond Brown, chief operating officer for Howard County schools, said that the second phase of work on a new Ellicott City elementary school now is projected to cost $15.3 million instead of $11 million. Costs are up $5.6 million for one phase of a planned replacement building for Bushy Park Elementary.

Baltimore County officials haven't delayed projects, said Richard Cassell, head of engineering for county schools, but he is worried about the costs for a new western county elementary school and a major renovation planned for Kenwood High School.

In Anne Arundel County, acting facilities director Alex Szachnowicz said costs may affect the new, 353-seat Tracey's Elementary School planned to open in the south county in 2007, as well as a Ferndale Early Childhood Center and a gym addition to North County High School.

In Harford County, completion of the $50 million renovation of North Harford High School in the rural north county cost 23 percent more than budgeted, said Joe Licata, assistant superintendent for operations.

Carroll officials are awaiting bids on $12 million worth of all-day kindergarten additions that could balloon by more than $2 million - money Carroll doesn't have. "There's only so much money in the bucket. Some other project would suffer," said facilities director Ray Prokop.

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