Most parents are willing to pay the bills for new public school buildings if they’re getting their money’s worth. But few Charlotte-Mecklenburg parents have any idea if the school system is building schools as efficiently as possible. Thanks to Wake County taxpayers, parents here now have a new tool to help them get the biggest bang for their bucks.
Last year, CMS officials participated in a comprehensive study of new school construction costs commissioned by a Wake study group. The 324-page report unveiled in January offered a comprehensive and careful analysis of site development, building materials and building systems costs of new school construction in North Carolina, Nevada, Virginia, Georgia, and Florida school districts. Two independent consulting firms gathered data on 156 school construction projects bid since 2000. The consultants normalized the construction costs to account for variations in bid date and local construction conditions, ensuring apples-to-apples comparisons. They also broke down the construction costs into 16 standard construction trade categories or CSI divisions. The breakdown of costs according to CSI divisions allows district-to-district comparisons of the cost of mechanical and electrical systems, site development, materials, finishes, equipment, and the like.
For CMS, there was good news and bad news. The good news was that elementary school costs were slightly below average, coming in at $3.32 per square foot and $137 per student below the average for peer districts excluding CMS. This means that the typical CMS elementary school cost between $100,000 and $300,000 less than the average elementary school in the study. The school system should be commended for elementary school costs that compare favorably to peer districts.
The bad news was that CMS spends more, on average, to build new middle and high schools than its peers do. Given the sizable chunk of bond revenue that new middle and high schools would consume, this is a particularly troublesome finding. Specifically, CMS school officials plan to spend around $151 million — or nearly one-third of the total bond revenue — to build two new middle and two new high schools.
The typical CMS middle school cost an average of nearly $6 per square foot and $336 per student more than the average middle school among the peer districts. This translates into costs that were between $400,000 and $850,000 higher than the average for middle schools in the study. While CMS did not have the highest average middle school cost in the study, there is room for improvement.
For high school costs, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had the highest per square foot construction costs of any school system in the study, approximately $32 per square foot higher than average. In terms of per student cost, the typical CMS high school was $4,538 higher than average, third highest among the eight districts. The difference between CMS and the average among peer districts was staggering. The typical CMS high school was between $9 million and $10 million more expensive – 22 percent higher than the average high school in the study.
For example, the time- and location-adjusted bid cost of the Mallard Creek High School was $54.4 million, while the adjusted bid cost of the Holly Springs High School in Wake County was $43.9 million. A closer look at the study reveals that expenditures on doors and windows, concrete, equipment, and building sites were to blame for the comparatively high cost of the CMS high school. To its credit, CMS is currently developing a new high school building program, but it is not clear whether the program will specifically target these areas to reduce costs. Regardless, school officials must do a better job of containing high school construction costs.
The results of the study provide a clear message to CMS: lower middle and high school costs. The fact that Guy Chamberlain and his staff volunteered to participate in this study suggests that CMS school officials have renewed their commitment to using cost comparison data to improve their school capital plan. In the end, the combination of sound fiscal management, efficient building practices, and innovative construction methods would allow the county to meet the challenges of growth for years to come.