There is a need to expand our school capacity as our community grows, but I don’t think it needs to cost us double what it would cost a business, private enterprise, or even a charter school.
The Tooele County School District’s proposed $49 million bond on the ballot this year appears to be what I suspect is the typical splurge and splendor with other people’s money we’ve become accustomed to with such endeavors.
The proposal includes funding for two new elementary schools and upgrades to some existing schools. Each of the proposed elementary schools is budgeted to cost more than $16 million. Our local charter school, Excelsior Academy, cost only $9.7 million and includes all the facilities needed for junior high grades in addition to the elementary school grades.
I understand that some of the higher price tag in the school district’s proposal can be attributed to general inflation or other increases in costs in the intervening six years since Excelsior Academy was built. In addition to this, the school district claims it must build to higher standards than charter schools.
My questions are: Do these “higher” standards really cost $6 to $7 million more? Who imposes these “higher” standards? Why are charter schools held to a supposedly much lower standard? Even if the building codes are more stringent, I find it hard to believe extra brickwork, more concrete and maybe a louder fire alarm could nearly double the price. Are they using exotic bricks hand-fired with sapphire dust from the mines of Tibet?
Materials are probably some of it, but I believe some of the extra cost may also be due to the probability that only a few contractors are able to meet the specific requirements for constructing our district’s schools. If only a few firms are able to bid, it would severely limit the competitiveness of the process.
I’m not an expert on specific public building requirements, but it seems reasonable to suspect that there may be unnecessary requirements in these bids that are adding substantially to the cost, both in meeting the requirements and in discouraging more competitive bids.
Another factor adding to higher costs could be the prevalence of design features not normally found in charter schools. There are some elements, such as curved walls and false structures, in our current school district buildings that serve no functional purpose. I don’t think these are all necessarily bad; we certainly would like our schools to look nice, but I have not seen any excessive design elements in our local charter schools and they are still pleasant-looking buildings.
Charter schools are given a very precise budget. It is understood that the parents and business leaders who applied for the charter are used to economizing.
The school district is also asking for $7 million to construct an extension to the Tooele Junior High School. The current building on the site now is more than 50 years old, and is thus nearing the end of its life span (funny how homes and businesses seem to hang around much longer). To the school district’s credit, they see it foolish to add onto a building that may be demolished and replaced in the next 10 or so years, so they propose to erect the addition as a separate structure that can be tacked onto any future replacement building. Sounds farsighted and visionary, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t be so sure on this, though.
This reminds me of my alma mater, Dixie High School in St. George. Built in the 1960s, it would be about the same age as Tooele Junior High is today if it hadn’t been torn down and replaced in 2004. At the time of its demolition, it had an entire wing of about 10 classrooms and a fully remodeled and expanded library that were only eight years old.
I’m OK with expanding or replacing Tooele Junior High if it is really needed, but I have littletrust that it will be done responsibly. Nor do I trust the “need.” When the time comes, all sorts of reasons will be given for replacing the entire Tooele Junior High site, including any recent additions. “Safety” concerns will be foremost among them, because that has the most dependable appeal to parents. But it really all comes down to the fact that the personnel spending the money didn’t earn it themselves, so they will feel no overwhelming pressure to economize.
If the Tooele County School District would bring its costs down into line with private sector or charter school projects, give us forthright and binding assurances (in writing) about their long-term plans for Tooele Junior High, and ensure that all construction bids are really open to many viable contractors, I wouldn’t have so much unease about this bond.
Hamilton is a resident of Tooele City and is the creative director for Transcript Bulletin Publishing. His comments and opinions are his own.