Bibb school construction costs up but not excessive, officials say

The Bibb County school system is spending about average — or a little higher — to build its three new high schools compared to other systems in the state and region, depending on whom you ask.

High school construction costs are tracked statewide and nationally by several groups, based on what school systems pay per square foot of construction.

The Bibb County system calculates that the new Central High will cost about $139 per square foot to build; Southwest High, $148 per square foot; and Howard High, $123 per square foot, said Bob Flowers, the system's capital program administrator.

"We're well within range" of average costs, he said.

What's considered average spending, however, varies.

For instance, information from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, which tracks school construction costs and trends, shows that Bibb County is spending more than other systems in the state and the Southeast region to build Central and Southwest. And that's before possible increases in the price of steel or other building materials that could push costs higher before completion.

According to clearinghouse data, school systems in Georgia spent an average of $136 per square foot this past year, and $131 in the region, to build high schools.

The state Department of Education, on the other hand, shows that Bibb County is spending about the same amount to build high schools as other systems across the state. The department says the average per-square-foot cost is $150 for a high school.

Judy Marks, associate director for the clearinghouse, said many factors drive an area's school construction costs, including land value, labor and material costs.

"There's a huge variation of school construction costs all around the country," she said.

Some things are clear, though. School systems are building more and more new schools to accommodate growth and replace out-of-date facilities.

And overall, they are spending a lot more. Central and Southwest are projected to cost more than $30 million, and a new high school planned for Houston County may cost $50 million.

The Southeast region, including Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, was the fourth-highest-spending region in the country, with about $2 billion in ongoing school construction last year, according to the 2007 School Planning and Construction Report. Nationwide, about $21 billion worth of school construction was taking place in 2007.

Just as housing construction costs have surged with material and labor costs and fuel increases, so have school building prices, Marks said. "It's no different."

By comparison, in 1995, the cost to build a high school was about $104 per square foot, the report shows.

HIGHER COST TRENDS IMPACT BUDGETSchool construction is often higher because of what's being put inside schools these days, and that's true for Bibb and Houston county schools, too.

"Things that can affect costs are the programs being offered," Flowers said.

One trend in high school construction is not to use a cookie-cutter design, as done previously, but to build schools according to the particular courses and programs of study they will offer.

Both Central, a fine arts specialty school, and Southwest, a law academy magnet, are projected to cost more than Howard High School.

Some added costs for Central and Southwest include features such as a dance studio, performing arts centers, art rooms, a courtroom and specialty labs. Those require special design work and costs for the furnishings, Flowers said. The schools are being built for 1,000 to 1,200 students.

Howard High is being built almost in the same design used at Rutland High, but there were changes to accommodate some of Howard's planned career and technology program classes.

Bibb is also building its new high schools to be energy efficient, which means higher up-front costs but savings over time, Flowers said.

The three high schools will have motion sensors and timers that turn lights off and on. The system is using natural lighting in more spaces and polished concrete and vinyl cushioned tile floors, which cost more but have easier long-term maintenance. And all schools will have security cameras and intrusion alarms.

"There's also a tendency to go with green materials," said Gene Dunwody Sr., an architect on the Central High design.

As the old Central is being torn down and nearby duplexes demolished, that brick and concrete is being run through a crusher and will be reused for such things as school parking lots, Dunwody said.

Other higher-cost trends include building wider hallways so students can sit in desks in the hallway to study if need be, equipping schools with wireless technology and building classrooms in different sizes to accommodate different learning styles, such as lectures in smaller group settings.

The Houston County school system will be following these trends in its new 300,000-square-foot Veterans High School being built off Moody Road and scheduled to open in 2010, said Dave McMahan, the facilities director.

That school is being built for about 1,800 students and may cost the school system about $50 million for building, contracting, architectural fees and furnishings — the largest building project so far for Houston School officials.

Since construction work has not been put out for bid, Houston school officials do not yet know what they will spend per square foot on the high school.

Both Bibb and Houston are using money from a countywide penny sales tax initiative to help build and renovate schools.

Last year, Bibb's high school construction prices increased about $11 million per project from original cost projections made in 2005. It is possible that construction costs for the Southwest and Central projects will increase more in 2008.

During a recent school board meeting, Flowers told school board members that Southwest High construction costs could increase $2 million to $3 million this year and Central High $3 million to $5 million, depending on whether bids for work come in at the prices the system has projected.

"Right now, we're seeing bids come in lower," he said. "But we're far from completing the process."