1997 School Construction Report from School Planning and Management Magazine

(Provided to CEFPI with permission from School Planning & Management Magazine. (CEFPI is the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International - an equivalent to NCAC in their area made of architects, planers, school facility people) School Construction is definitely increasing. Is it increasing enough to meet demand?)

More money was spent on school construction in 1996 than in any other single year in our nation's history.

School districts completed more than $12 billion worth of construction during the last calendar year, about $700 million more than had been projected in the survey conducted a year earlier.

More than $6.1 billion was for entirely new school buildings, 50.9% of total construction spending. The balance was spent on adding to and upgrading existing buildings. This is the first year since 1982 that more money was spent on building new schools than on upgrading and expanding existing ones. These are among the major findings of SP&M's Second Annual Construction Report, compiled in partnership with School Construction Alert, a reporting service of Shelton, Conn.-based Market Data Retrieval, a division of Dunn & Bradstreet.

Raw information for this report is gathered by a School Construction Alert, and is based on survey forms and phone calls to every school district in the United States. Our readers significantly increase the accuracy of this national report (which is used by the federal government, as well as state, local, and private governments and organizations) when they provide detailed information to the School Construction Alert Callers.

National Totals

School districts and colleges were asked detailed questions about construction completed in 1996, expected to be completed in 1997, and projected to start in 1997.

As table 1 shows, school districts in 1996 spent more than $12 billion on total construction, including $6,117,090,000 on new schools, $3,557,333,000 on additions to existing buildings, and $2,344,217,000 on renovations of existing buildings. This is 16.6% more than the $10.3 billion worth of construction put in place in 1995.

Interestingly, the amount of money spent on renovations was almost the same each year, but the amount of dollars spent on additions increased by better than 21 percent, as did the spending for new buildings.

A year ago, school districts were asked to estimate the amount of construction they expected to complete in 1996. The total projected was less than was actually completed. Districts were quite accurate in their expectations for completion of new schools and for renovations, but they significantly underestimated the cost of additions that would be completed. What these figures cannot show is whether the underestimate was because the projects proved more expensive than they expected, whether they were enlarged or otherwise changed, or whether this is a reflection of districts needing to provide more space quickly for an influx of unexpected students, possibly by ordering fleets of relocatable buildings.

In 1997, school districts expect to complete construction valued at $12.83 billion, of which $6.9 billion will be for new school buildings. Construction projected to start in 1997 totals $13.176 billion, with 51% of the money slated to go to entirely new buildings.

School Construction completed took a big jump in 1996, not surprisingly considering the pent up pressure that was building during five years of flat construction and growing student populations. The projections for completions in 1997 and starts this year indicate that the increased activity was more than a one-year aberration and is probably the beginning of a trend.

With all the construction activity now taking place, one question that needs to be asked is, "Is It Enough?" The answer, in a single word, is "No." By all accounts and measures, our nation needs more school construction than it is undertaking, both to bring existing schools up to snuff and to house an expanding number of students.

Consider, for example, the government estimate that $112 billion is needed to repair existing buildings. School districts are currently spending $2.3 billion annually on renovation. Even at the rate of $3.3 billion projected to start in 1997, it would take 35 years to catch up with the existing need. Meanwhile, of course, our existing good buildings would deteriorate and need their own renovations, so at the end of 35 years, we probably would have made little dent in the backlog.

As for construction, we are opening an estimated 522 new school buildings this year, providing enough space to accommodate 338,000 new students. According to the Department of Education, approximately 840,000 more students enrolled in 1996 than in 1995, so we actually have a deficit of 502,000 new seats. At the present rate, we are not only failing to keep up with increased school population, we're falling behind.

Construction Completed in 1996

School construction is taking place all across the United States, but some regions are spending more than others. Tables 2, 3, and 4 show how much construction is being done in each of 12 regions of the United States, including construction completed in 1996, expected to be completed in 1997, and estimates for construction starting in 1997.

As shown in table 2, in 1996, six regions completed more than $1 billion of construction apiece. Region 2 (Delaware, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) spent the most money, $1.611 billion. It was followed by region 7 and region 6. The interesting thing to note here is that three regions and nine states that have not been identified as major growth states are spending more money on school construction than any other part of the nation. The reason seems to lie in three factors: the sheer high number of students who are in schools in the northeast and midwest; a tradition of concern and spending for education that continues to exist in these areas; and the fact that construction costs are higher here than in most other regions of the nation, meaning that, while more money is being spent, it may not necessarily be resulting in more school space.

The three other regions that completed more than $1 billion worth of school construction in 1996 are regions 11 (CA/surrounding) with $1.2 billion; region 9 with almost $1.2 billions; and region 5 where more than $1.1 billion was spent.

But the total dollars tell only a part of the story. In regions 2 and 6, relatively little of the money was spent on constructing new buildings, region 2 school districts spent better than 47 percent of their money adding to existing school buildings. Region 6 spread its money relatively evenly among new construction, addition and renovations, although additions did get the lion's share of the dollars.

All of the other big spending regions put most of their money into new construction and little into fixing existing buildings. In regions 5 and 11, for example, better than 65 percent of the dollars available went into new buildings, while less than 15 percent was spent on renovation. These are regions where burgeoning populations are putting the pressure on existing facilities and the drive is to provide space first; the niceties of improved facilities will have to wait.

Even among some of the lower spending regions, the difference can be seen between those areas of the nation that must build to house as opposed to those that can spend to improve. New England districts spent about one third of their dollars on improvements last year, and states in the northwest followed a similar pattern. But, in Region 10, the emphasis was on new buildings and space, with less than 12 of every 100 dollars going to improve existing buildings.

The bottom line is that, overall in the United States, in 1996 -- for the first time in 15 years-- more than half the construction dollars went to new schools.

Projected Construction Activity

The figures on construction completed in 1996 are projected from survey returns and interviews conducted by School Construction Alert during the last year and closely reflect actual construction that took place. School districts were asked, too, to describe construction they had underway or expected to complete in calendar 1997 or that they were expecting to start in 1997. Tables 3 and 4 show those projections on a region-by-region basis.

The 1996 regional pattern seems to hold among school districts that will complete construction in 1997 (Table 3). The same six regions expect to complete more than $1 billion worth of construction this year, led by Regions 2 and 6. Interestingly, both of these regions expect to devote a larger percentage of their dollars to new buildings than they did in 1996, but both still spend more on existing structures. Overall, the nation expects to spend 54 percent of its school construction dollars on new school buildings.

Looking at construction scheduled to start this year (Table 4), the pattern remains the same. Each of the six big-spending regions has committed to spending more than $1 billion, and it's possible that, before the year ends, Region 1 will join that group.

More than half the total dollars ($6.8 billion) are destined to be spent on new buildings. Another $3.3 billion is for additions to existing buildings, so a total of $10.1 billion is expected to be spent to provide additional space. That leaves $3.3 billion for renovation. If that figures holds up, it will represent the most dollars spent on renovating existing schools in any one year in our history. Why so much money devoted to school renovations? Spiraling energy costs may be one reason but the more likely one is that schools are scrambling to make it possible to use more technology.

Building Types

Table 5 profiles new school buildings in the United States by building type. To develop this table, we looked at entirely new school buildings that were completed in 1996 or scheduled for completion in 1997. Only reports that contained completed information on number of students, cost of facility and size of facility were used.

Complete information was provided on 164 elementary schools, 79 middle and junior high schools and 143 high schools. In each case, the median cost of the schools on a national basis was found, as was the median size in square feet and the median capacity in terms of students. Thus, as Table 5 shows, the median elementary school in the United States cost $6.5 million. The median middle or junior high school cost $8.4 million, and the median high school $13 million. In terms of size, half of the elementary schools were 66,000 square feet or less and half were 66,000 square feet or more. The median for middle and junior high schools was 100,000 square feet and 150,000 square feet for high schools.

The median elementary school is designed for 584 students. Middle schools at the median were designed for 675 students while the median high school will house 704 students.

To get information on cost per square foot, cost per student and square feet per student, calculations were made for each individual school. Then schools were organized from low to high to find the median. The figure given for low quartile is the point at which 25 percent of the reporting schools were lower and 75 percent were higher. The high quartile is the point at which 25 percent of the schools reported were higher and the other 75 percent were lower.

Thus, in terms of cost per square foot, the median elementary school cost $97.56. One-quarter of the elementary schools cost $82.35 or less. On the other end of the scale, one-quarter spend $116.51 per square foot or more.

The same groupings follow for middle schools and high schools. The median middle school reported a cost of $87.50 per square foot, but one-quarter of the schools reporting said that they spent more than $117.78 per square foot. At the high school level, $101.35 was spent by the median district. One-quarter of the high schools were built for $88.15 or less, while one-quarter cost $114.29 per square foot or more.

Cost and Size per Student

The same distinctions follow on cost per student. The median elementary school cost $12,200 per pupil, while the median middle school was $12,807 per pupil. At the high school level, one-quarter of the schools reported spent $13,125 per student or less. The median school reported cost $17,524 per student while one-quarter spent more than $22,000 per student.

We also looked at the number of square feet provided for each expected student. In this area, we were somewhat surprised at the high median figure. Certainly, elementary schools, which have been built at around 110 square feet per pupil, have taken a large jump to 124. Middle schools had been averaging approximately 130 square feet per student but, this year, report almost 145. High schools, which had fallen to 150 square feet per pupil, jumped back up to 172 square feet in the median school.

At this point it is difficult to know whether this is a reporting error or whether schools are being planned to be larger.

Comparing With Your Region

The figures we have just examined are national and can be affected by a variety of causes ranging from the location of the buildings to the amenities provided. Tables 6-1 through 6-12 provide an opportunity to compare your construction activity and costs with those of neighbors in your region. For each region, the total construction activity is shown, including new schools, additions, renovations and total construction completed in 1996, expected to be completed in 1997 and total construction expected to start in 1997.

Total activity is shown in exactly the same way for each of the 12 regions of the United States. These effectively summarize the information shown previously in Tables 2, 3 and 4 so that your regions three-year activity can be examined.

Also shown are the median cost per square foot, cost per student and square feet per student for elementary schools, middle schools and high schools within each of the 12 regions. Using Table 6-1 as a guide, one can see that, in New England, the cost per square foot for new elementary schools was $123.53, significantly higher than the national median. As a matter of fact, the median school in Region 1 spends more per square foot for elementary schools (and for each of the other types of schools) than the high quartile figure that is shown nationally.

The same is true on cost per student and on the space provided per student. New England schools tend to be roomier and more expensive than those in the nation as a whole. Interestingly, the median cost of a new elementary school is below the median nationally ($6.3 million as opposed to $6.5 million), but the school in New England is planned for 400 students, not for 584 students.

Costs in Region 2 tend to be higher than those throughout the nation but, in Region 3, middle schools in particular are less costly than the national median. Does that mean that, if you built a middle school for more than $75 per square foot in Region 3, you overpaid for your building? The answer, most certainly, is "we don't know."

Where is your district located? Is it in rural Virginia or urban Maryland? One thing that the survey cannot tell, even on a regional basis, is where reported middle schools exist within the region.

Thus, even on a regional basis it is important to use these figures carefully and as benchmarks, but do not misuse them as limitations for your own construction.

It is important to remember, too, that these figures on median costs and size are based on new schools only.

Details, Details

Table 7 looks at the kinds of facilities provided in new schools being completed in 1996 and 1997. Table 8 shows what is being added to existing elementary, middle and high schools.

In Summary

The 1997 report shows that school construction in the United States is increasing in response to the growing number of students and the complexity of program.

The other side of the coin, unfortunately, is that, with all of the building that is being done, we are not keeping up with the number of students who are entering our schools, and we are nowhere near keeping up with the need to remodel, retrofit and renovate our existing school buildings. America says it cares about its children and wants them to do better in school, but it still doesn't appear to have the will to spend the money to make sure that every child has a proper seat in a proper room with the proper equipment to make that learning possible.

Paul Abramson, a CEFPI member, is associate publisher/editorial director of School Planning and Management, and may be reached at 914/834-2606.

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