Tod­dler Taj Ma­hal?

Cost of Texas school has state of­fi­cials see­ing red

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY PHILLIP SWARTS

Forty-thou­sand dol­lars per stu­dent sounds like the an­nual price tag for tu­ition at a pres­ti­gious col­lege. But it’s ac­tu­ally the pro­jected cost to build a pre-kinder­garten school in Austin, Texas, that has state of­fi­cials spar­ring with the lo­cal school board.

Con­struc­tion costs on the pre-K school — com­plete with a sci­ence lab — have reached a level that Texas Comptroller Su­san Combs calls un­ac­cept­able.

“There was one right here in Austin which is the Anita Uphaus early ed­u­ca­tion center, and I re­ferred to it as [the] Taj Ma­hal for tots,” said Ms. Combs, who acts as the chief trea­surer and ac­coun­tant for the Lone Star state.

The to­tal cost for the school is $14.6 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments from the Austin In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict and the con­struc­tion com­pany in charge of build­ing it. With an en­roll­ment of slightly fewer than 300 stu­dents, the cost to con­struct the build­ing lies at more than $40,000 per stu­dent — more than dou­ble the av­er­age na­tion­wide per-stu­dent cost — al­though there are plans to in­crease the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the 35th an­nual Of­fi­cial Ed­u­ca­tion Con­struc­tion Re­port, pub­lished in 2009 by the Amer­i­can School and Univer­sity, the cost of con­struct­ing ele­men­tary and pre-ele­men­tary

schools was about $19,000 per stu­dent and $154 per square foot. Ms. Combs’ eval­u­a­tion of con­struc­tion dur­ing the past seven years es­ti­mated the cost na­tion­wide at $20,000 per stu­dent and $153 per square foot.

The Uphaus Center is es­ti­mated to cost $199 per square foot.

For let­ting con­struc­tion costs grow at the ex­pense of ed­u­ca­tion, the Austin In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict wins the Golden Ham­mer, a weekly dis­tinc­tion awarded by The Wash­ing­ton Times to ex­am­ples of ex­ces­sive tax­payer spend­ing.

Curt Shaw, a for­mer di­rec­tor of con­struc­tion man­age­ment for the school dis­trict, said the price isn’t that dif­fer­ent from those of other re­cent build­ings. One ele­men­tary school cost $163 per square foot, another $207 per square foot.

Con­struc­tion also must meet many en­vi­ron­men­tal and build­ing reg­u­la­tions im­posed by the city, Mr. Shaw said.

“Do­ing busi­ness con­struct­ing in the city of Austin, there are a lot of spe­cific re­quire­ments that we have to con­tend with that maybe other cities don’t,” he said.

The school also has been de­signed with many eco-friendly fea­tures that will save money, of­fi­cials said, and the struc­tures are built to last.

“The in­vest­ment of a lit­tle more at the be­gin­ning of th­ese de­sign fea­tures plays it­self out in op­er­at­ing costs over the long haul,” said Paul Turner, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of fa­cil­i­ties at the Austin In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict. “Over that 50- or 75-year term, we’re go­ing to re­coup those costs in en­ergy con­ser­va­tion.”

Plus, the school isn’t at its full ca­pac­ity of 432 stu­dents, which would drop the per-stu­dent cost, though at close to $34,000, it still would be con­sid­er­ably pricier than the na­tional av­er­age.

Re­gard­less, Ms. Combs said, the school dis­trict has run up about $808 mil­lion in debt that tax­pay­ers will owe.

“You have to find a way to man­age your lo­cal ex­penses in a way that meets the lo­cal needs and doesn’t put ev­ery­thing into bricks and mor­tar but ac­tu­ally in­vests in the brains, in­vests in what’s up here as op­posed to some of th­ese su­per­struc­tures,” she said.

School of­fi­cials na­tion­wide have been plac­ing greater em­pha­sis on pre-kinder­garten ed­u­ca­tion as stud­ies show that good ed­u­ca­tion at an early age can help stu­dents do bet­ter later on and im­prove grad­u­a­tion rates.

The fa­cil­ity was built in part to ease over­crowd­ing. The school dis­trict now has 19,000 stu­dents us­ing por­ta­ble classrooms, said Jac­que­line Porter, di­rec­tor of early childhood.

Along with the young chil­dren the school serves, high school stu­dents can help teach in the sci­ence lab and par­ents have a meet­ing space where they can get in­volved in their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion.

“By mov­ing those chil­dren into their own spa­ces where ev­ery­thing’s tai­lored to fit their needs, their scores are ex­po­nen­tially bet­ter,” Ms. Porter said.

Of­ten in the em­pha­sis on cur­ricu­lum, teach­ers and stu­dents, school con­struc­tion can be over­looked. A study by Craig How­ley, an ed­u­ca­tion scholar at Ohio Univer­sity, ex­am­ined the best size for schools, specif­i­cally high schools. He found lit­tle scru­tiny of how much it costs to build schools.

“Oddly enough, as of­ten hap­pens in ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy, no one re­ally knows be­cause no one has re­ally asked,” said the study, pub­lished in 2008 in Ed­u­ca­tional Plan­ning mag­a­zine. “Lack of schol­arly in­ter­est in th­ese ques­tions is sur­pris­ing, per­haps scan­dalous, in view of the large sums spent and the po­lit­i­cal bat­tles of­ten waged when new schools are built.”

Ms. Combs said she has faced re­sis­tance from state and lo­cal of­fi­cials but wants them to be ac­count­able for how they’re spend­ing tax­payer funds.

“I was told, as I tes­ti­fied in the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, that it was too hard for any cit­i­zen to un­der­stand school con­struc­tion costs un­less they ac­tu­ally at­tended ev­ery meet­ing and stayed late at night,” she said. “We be­lieve that it is in­cum­bent upon any pub­lic of­fi­cial to tell the truth, to pro­vide the data, to look for the best value, and don’t ever hide the num­bers.”

WWW.TEX­AS­TRANS­PARENCY.ORG

The Anita Uphaus Early Childhood Center opened to pre-kinder­garten and kinder­garten stu­dents in East Austin in Septem­ber 2012 to re­lieve over­crowd­ing at nearby ele­men­tary schools. Based on data sup­plied by the school dis­trict, con­struc­tion costs for the center were $199 per square foot, 30 per­cent higher than the $153 av­er­age for pre-K/kinder­garten fa­cil­i­ties built in Texas.

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