A Final Thought

Things Have Changed

New school buildings now cost more, here's why.

Many things are said and written about history. The philosopher George Santayana is often cited for his statement, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Many people who study history will remind us that it is most often written by the victors and seldom tells the other side.

I got to musing about history when I examined the school construction activity that I have tracked over the last 40 years, and particularly since the turn of the present century. It is an interesting story of increasing costs and leveling construction: of money being used to build and to expand and repair. And it could very well be a false history, since it is the result of the compilation of individual reports, chosen at random and accepted as stated. Nevertheless, in the last 13 years, since the turn of the century, a pattern has developed, a pattern that appears to give a very good and useful view of what is happening and why.

As is shown in tables and text of the 2014 School Construction Report, almost $13.4 billion was spent on school construction completed in 2013, an increase of more than $400 million from 2012. The driving force in that increase was the completion of entirely new school buildings. As a matter of fact, spending on existing buildings — adding to them and fixing them up — actually fell from 2012 to 2013.

But despite this emphasis on new schools, fewer than 300 new schools were completed in 2013. By contrast, in the Year 2000, 812 new schools were completed in the U. S., while the nation was spending $10.4 billion total on school construction. The following year, based on patterns of spending, an estimated 825 new schools were completed and in 2002, as many as 958 new schools were opened. That’s the largest number of new schools to be opened in any one year in this century. From 2002 through 2011, the number of new schools completed each year fell significantly to fewer than 300. The last two years, the number of new schools has rebounded just slightly and remains below 300.

At the same time, the cost for each new building completed has almost doubled. In 2001, the median new school — elementary, middle and high schools combined — cost $12,963,000. In 2013, the median new school cost was $25,671,000.

Why have new school buildings become so much more expensive? I do not know exactly, but I am certain that at least four factors play into these numbers.

1. Distribution of schools. The need for new school buildings starts in the elementary grades and reaches high schools later. From 2008, the first year a full analysis is available, to 2013, the proportion of elementary schools among those buildings completed has fallen while the number of middle schools and, particularly high schools, has increased. Since high schools are more expensive than elementary, that accounts for a significant part of the increase.

2. Construction costs overall have increased. The median building completed in 2001 cost about $105 per square foot. The 10 percent of districts that spent the most money stayed under $200 per square foot. Among new schools completed in 2013, using the same methodology for calculating costs, the median elementary school cost more than $200 per square foot and the median high school almost $250.

3. Size. The median schools reported in this year’s survey are being built for smaller school populations than they were at the turn of the century, but they are providing significantly more space per pupil. An elementary school constructed in 2001 provided about 110 square feet per child. Today’s elementary schools provide almost 150. The difference is not quite so great in middle and high schools, but stands at about 10 extra square feet for each student. Given the cost factors, that is an important difference.

4. Sophistication and quality. More is going into new schools today, some of it to improve education (think particularly technology and pre-school programs and space); some of it to improve the environment (building “green” often involves increased initial costs that are more than made up during the school’s operating lifetime); some of it for security (hardware, detection systems, entrance protection); some of it to meet more stringent codes (handicapped access, safety and security). Schools constructed today should last longer and operate less expensively than those built a decade or more ago, but that adds to initial cost.

There may be other factors, including reporting errors, but the bottom line is easy: It costs significantly more to build a new school today than it did just a decade ago. In part at least, that added cost could be put down as the cost of delay.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at intelled@aol.com.

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