Last week at a joint meeting of the Wake County Commissioners and Wake County Board of Education , Joe Desormeaux, Assistant Superintendent for Facilities, made a presentation outlining Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) seven year capital improvement plan. The proposal Desormeaux discussed includes $170 million for 5 new elementary schools; $63 million for 1 new middle school and $100 million for 1 new high school for a total of $333 million in new construction over the next seven years. That works out to the average cost of $34 million for an elementary school, $63 million for a middle school and $100 million for a high school. It should be noted the costs include building, site, off-site costs, design services and other costs. The numbers used also reflect 2017 dollars.
That’s a lot of money. And to me, those estimates seem high. Am I wrong in my thinking?
Earlier in the week, I did a little poll and asked co-workers what they thought the average cost of a new elementary, middle and high school in Wake County would be. Let’s just say no one was close to the actual numbers. No one was even in the same galaxy.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has a School Planning Clearinghouse that assists school districts with the planning and construction of new schools. They also have interesting information on the average cost of new elementary, middle and high school buildings in North Carolina in 2015.
Elementary School: $18.6 million
Middle School: $23 million
High School: $65 million
Now it should be noted these costs do not reflect all new schools in North Carolina; only those that chose to respond. In addition, these figures include only the costs for construction. They do not include the cost of land, furnishings, design fees or legal costs. These figures would need to add the additional costs before used they could offer a true comparison to the figures used in the WCPSS presentation. Still, it can’t be denied that construction costs are the main component in each estimate and you can’t help but notice the discrepancy. Of course the price of land is generally higher in counties with more population. But what factors accounts for the disparity in school costs?
The school facilities office also publishes a list of the cost recent school projects. These resources are helpful for providing context for projects and seeing where Wake County projects fall relative to other areas. A quick review shows that some projects did better than state average and some did worse.
In recent decades Wake County has spent billions on school construction to serve the needs of a growing county. The availability of other educational options and a prolonged economic slowdown has altered the path of growth in Wake County. Those changes rightfully require an adjustment in how many schools we build for the future and the assurance that taxpayer dollars are being used wisely.