Wednesday, April 16, 2008

School Daze

I was reminded this week of how wasteful the public school system is by an article in the Houston Chronicle. Klein Independent School District is trying to pass a bond measure to borrow money for new facilities. Part of the bond package is to replace two existing high schools.

What is the price tag for each high school? Only $130 Million per high school! Each school is supposed to house a close-knit 3,500 students. The schools are full of “necessities”, such as “natatoriums, black-box theaters, dance areas and extensive career and technology programs”. The natatorium is likely an indoor Olympic size swimming pool. A black-box theater allows for special stage productions in addition to a traditional school theater.

Adding to that high price is the fact that the school district already owns the land and it does not include the price of furnishings.

Are these costs out of whack, or is it simply that expensive to build a high school today? How much did schools cost 15 to 20 years ago? What has been the increase in construction costs?

For proper comparison, the price needs to be divided by the number of students the school is expected to educate. It wouldn’t be fair to compare a small town high school to large suburban schools without adjusting for student population. The price per student is around $37,100 for these new high schools.

According to an expert quoted in the article:

“The median cost-per-square-foot of a high school has increased from $104 in 1995 to $171 in 2007, he said. And rates continue to increase as much as 15 percent a year, experts said.”

So, in 1995 this school would have cost $22,600. The article also mentions the price of the high school I attended, Pearland High school, also a suburban Houston school, that was built in 1991. Filling the four year gap between 1991 and 1995, and adding two more years after 2007 to coincide with the actual groundbreaking date with the same rate of construction cost inflation between 1995 and 2007, this implies that my high school should have cost $17,600 per student.

From my memory, my high school was 5A (the largest classification in Texas) and held about 2,400 students my senior year when we started to run out of space. Using these numbers, it implies that my high school should have cost around $42 million.

What was the actual construction price of my high school according to the article? Only $12 million. This means that Klein’s school district has chosen to build these schools 3½ times more extravagant than Pearland did in 1991.

While the Klein High School numbers were rather shocking to me, I did a quick Google search assuming that this could not be the most outrageously expensive high school in America. I was not disappointed.

In suburban Boston, the town of Newton is building a high school for around 2,000 students. According to Boston Globe the costs have spiraled out of control up to $197 million. That is $98,500 per student. That price is just over 2½ times more expensive than Klein’s schools, and a mere 19 times more expensive per student than my high school. Surprisingly enough, the article does not mention any gold plated desks or diamond studded pencils.

The most heinous problem with this out of control spending is where the money is going. The costs for building a simple classroom have not increased so staggeringly. What has gone up is the enormous appetite of school officials for extracurricular facilities. While I have little doubt that all those things are fun for these students, I don’t really understand why the government needs society as a whole to pay for them. Having fun and forming hobbies is not the business of government.

I propose a state law that would limit school construction to having 40% of square footage to academic classroom space. The 40% is just an estimate and may seem high or low, but accounts for the need for hallways, offices, cafeterias, etc… There should also be room for extracurricular activities and vocational classes, but the school should not be dominated by hundreds of thousands of square feet of non-academic building space.

This bond package would include a 16% increase in school property taxes for Klein I.S.D. I complain about taxes, but the only way to keep taxes down is for the government to spend less. When millions of dollars of waste are included in all-or-nothing school bond packages, it puts voters in the unfair position of choosing between preventing waste and having crowded dilapidated schools.

As always, tell me what you think.

1 comment:

Leviathan said...

Although many people aren't aware, there is a PAC, Klein for All, that is working to defeat the Klein ISD bond proposal.