New schools, explosive costs

Jordan district saw building expenses double in 5 years
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When West Jordan's Oquirrh Elementary School burned down in 1995, it was rebuilt using a design the Jordan School District would use again and again. Compared with today's construction costs, it was also rebuilt at a fire-sale price.

As the first of its kind for the district's "repeat school" plan, the Oquirrh design was carried over to more than a dozen elementary schools. The same materials. The same number of square feet.

As such, the district's many elementary schools make an almost perfect illustration of just how much construction costs for Utah school districts have risen over the years. Jordan, the state's largest school district - at least until it splits in 2009 - isn't alone in coping with the escalating costs.

"I've spoken with architectural firms across the valley and they're saying the same thing," said Barry Newbold, Jordan School District superintendent.

When it was rebuilt in 1995, Oquirrh Elementary School cost the district $5.5 million said Randy Haslam, director of new construction for Jordan. Eight years later, the same building plan cost the district $7 million when it was used in Foothills and South Jordan elementary schools.

Five years later, however, that cost has more than doubled. Among the most recent construction projects the district completed, Falcon Ridge and Eastlake elementary schools cost a stunning $15 million each, Haslam said. The district blames the rising cost of materials brought on by the demands of a global economy coupled with the skyrocketing cost of land. "We're at the mercy of those changes," Haslam said.

Even if the slowing economy translates into fewer home sales and declining enrollment, however, Jordan school officials face the difficult task of estimating future costs of school construction for the remaining west-side district. That new schools are so much more expensive than in years past means that either Utah taxpayers face increased property taxes to foot the bills or see more children educated in year-round schools to make greater use of available square feet. In all likelihood, said Newbold, higher construction costs probably mean both.

"To fund new growth in the remaining district in the west for the next eight years, we're going to be over a billion dollars [in construction costs]," he said.

Haslam notes that all new schools being built by the district will open under year-round schedules in order to house 25 percent more students. The west-side district estimates increased enrollment of at least 20,000 more students by 2016. "The number of students we need to house is screaming for more buildings," he said.

Given the unstable price of construction materials, it's easier to build future district budgets around estimated costs as opposed to the number of schools needed.

Because of increases in the price of copper, electrical systems cost up to 200 percent or more of what they did five or six years ago, Newbold said. Gypsum used in drywall costs 80 to 90 percent more. Land bought in the past for $50,000 an acre now runs $300,000 an acre or more, thanks to companies who in the past bought large parcels.

"It's not that land isn't available, it's just available from fewer sources," he said. "It used to be that if someone didn't sell you land at the price you wanted, you could go a couple miles down the road and talk to someone who would."

For years, Jordan and other school districts enjoyed stable costs for most everything needed to build a school, land included. Between 1998 and 2003, in fact, the rate of inflation on construction costs hovered in the single digits, said Burke Jolley, deputy superintendent for business services at the Jordan School District. The increases began abruptly in 2004, the year after voters in the district approved a massive $196 million bond to fund school construction. The timing couldn't have been worse, because the bonding estimate was based on past costs, and resulted in the loss of two middle schools and an elementary school the district planned on building. "You just run out of money," Newbold said.

Creative approaches to building new schools help - to a point. Using a multi-level design traditionally reserved for middle and high schools, the district decided to build its first two-story elementary school with South Jordan's Eastlake Elementary in order to save on land costs.

"You don't save much on the building, because you still have to make code, which can be costly," Newbold said.

In the new age of pricey schools, though, every little bit helps. The district is already in the process of completing its next two-story elementary school in the Herriman area. "We're considering more and more of those kinds of schools," Newbold said.