We're spending too much on fancy school buildings

Seattle is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate schools – and they need renovating. But the resulting extravagance seems out of scale given the basic challenges today of simply educating kids.
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Seattle is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate schools – and they need renovating. But the resulting extravagance seems out of scale given the basic challenges today of simply educating kids.

We in Seattle are spending obscene amounts of money fixing our schools with the hope that it will help improve the quality of education. The spending binge is such that you can't help but wonder if it has more to do with assuaging our consciences for failing to improve test scores or help children at risk.

Educational reform is one of the more challenging social dilemmas of the century. Graduation testing requirements and Bush's slogan of "no child left behind" haven't brought about significant changes. There are children still at risk, and a staggering number of high school graduates couldn't pass the citizenship test we ask of new immigrants. But is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on elaborate school buildings going to cure the problems in education? It's as though we feel helpless to increase student performance, so we throw money at the structures where learning's supposed to occur.

In the Seattle area, private schools are flourishing. A good many of these schools are in makeshift buildings. Lakeside school, one of the most generously endowed private schools in the region, operates in facilities that are modest if not spartan by comparison to the new or remodeled public high schools. There simply is no correlation between money spent to remodel a school and educational effectiveness.

We want our schools to be clean, safe, warm, and have the classrooms and spaces that support the educational programs, but just how fancy do they need to be?

The Seattle School District has many aging buildings. Some are more than a half century old. While the district's student population is half what it was in the 1960s, the district asked for and the public voted yes on a $398 million measure in 2001 to rebuild aging schools.

Garfield High School is under renovation, and it has already become the most expensive construction project in Seattle Public Schools history. The extensive remodeling of the 1923 building will add a performing-arts center said to have few rivals. Garfield's $78 million project cost has now soared to more than $100 million. It remains to be seen if that $100 million will improve student performance.

Garfield isn't the only school to experience cost overruns. Cleveland High has just opened at a cost of more than $68 million. It took $93.8 million to renovate Roosevelt High School. Stadium High in Tacoma finished a remodel last year at a cost of more than $106 million. Stadium's restoration is the most expensive restoration in the state. Eleanor Trainor, a spokesperson for Seattle schools, said Seattle's school renovation costs more than $310 per square foot. The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction says this is twice the statewide average. It's impossible not to question if school boards and administrations in Seattle and Tacoma are more preoccupied with image than functionality. Will spending twice as much show we care more about our kids or improve performance?

Trainor, the Seattle schools spokesperson, asserts that high costs are due to a shortage of materials, inflation, high labor costs, and competition for construction companies in Seattle's building boom. Likely all true. But neighboring districts are experiencing the same building boom and are building for less. It leaves only one conclusion. Seattle and Tacoma school boards and administrations are asking for Rolls Royce buildings when a Ford would do as well.

Let's look at a project still in the works. The Seattle School District has developed plans to remodel Hamilton International Middle School. Still amazingly functional, it was built in the 1920s on a small site and has served many generations of Seattle children. It has undergone several upgrades in the past, but none to rival the current project. While mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems need replacement, the basic structure and architecture are sound. It's being used today. The cost of this project is projected to be $73.5 million. That's $81,000 for each pupil they expect to educate.

Now we come to the hard part. What should we have to spend to have a good school? We can look at other school districts to see if they have done better. Lake Washington School District just completed, a year or so ago, a new school of somewhat similar size to Hamilton for $9.8 million. It's a spectacular school, having won architectural awards including commendation for energy efficiency. In all fairness you can't compare it directly with Hamilton, which is intended to serve several hundred more kids. But even at that, it is incredibly impressive at less than $10 million. It's about one-seventh as expensive as the projected cost of Hamilton at $73.5 million.

Hamilton's original architect was outstanding. His design was attractive if not elegant for its time. It provided all the required educational spaces, was efficient and functional, but not extravagant. His basic designs are still relevant today. The educational spaces work. Why build a new gymnasium when two already exist? Why build a very expensive on-site parking garage at $30,000 per stall when staff parking could be accommodated at Lower Woodland Park and a shuttle bus provided? Or why plan for a middle school of near a thousand students on one of the smallest school sites in Seattle? Especially when data suggest smaller schools perform better?

The district asked architects to include a new auditorium large enough to entertain the entire student body at one time, while the original architect realized that with such a small site the auditorium could not be so large. The size problem was solved by merely by scheduling two assemblies. Even during the late 1960s, when Hamilton's enrollment exceeded design capacity by more than 300 students, the double assembly was found to work effectively. A huge assembly space was simply unnecessary.

If we study the cost of building new and remodeled schools statewide, there is every reason to believe that Seattle's high construction costs are related more to requests made by Seattle schools for items other school districts seem to believe they can do without.

Of course, we must maintain our schools and remodel them when they wear out. We are obligated to keep them clean, safe, and adequate to do the job of educating our children. But if we expect the public or the Legislature to fully fund education, then remodeling school buildings at prices that range from $60 million to $100 million must come to an end.


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