Archive for Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lesson learned: USD 232 hedges against inflation

October 19, 2006

Although construction costs for schools vary across Johnson County, school administrators agree there's one thing all growing districts have to cope with -- inflation.

De Soto USD 232 experienced the reality of rising construction costs in 2004 when the board of education was forced to eliminate an elementary school from the bond projects because of rising construction costs.

For the proposed 2006 bond issue, district facilities director Denis Johnson said the district was preparing in advance for inflating costs. The district wants to make sure the 2004 elimination of an elementary school is the last and only time the district won't be able to build what it promised.

"We budget about 4-percent inflation," he said. "But two years ago, we were seeing 11 percent with the steel crises."

Johnson said steel shortages attributed to demand in a booming China, and post-Katrina hurricane rebuilding and rising oil prices all led to out-of-control inflation of construction costs.

"It hurt every school district," he said.

Blue Valley schools, for example, don't even put specific buildings into their bond referendum because the district is building on such a large scale.

Johnson said that with cooperation from other districts, De Soto is able to plan ahead and try new cost-saving ideas.

"I visit with Gardner, and they're going through a lot of the same stuff," he said.

"We compare square footage costs to make sure we're in line. That's the nice thing about schools as opposed to private industry. We're not competing with each other, so we're comparing costs back and forth."

De Soto board member Randy Johnson said construction costs were a concern to bond issue opposition. He criticized the district for a large number of change orders, saying the additional costs also played a part in eliminating one elementary school in 2004.

"We're not opposed to facilities needs, but we cannot stand behind a yes vote continued on poor judgment on bond dollar," board member Johnson said.

District communications director Alvie Cater said there were a lot of factors to consider when comparing school costs. Not all schools can be equally compared because some districts have to pay more to build roads, and install sewers or water lines to the site if the neighborhood isn't developed. Some districts have more building regulations required by the city.

The Olathe school district completed a new elementary school, Ravenwood, in 2006. The school is similar in student capacity to those planned for USD 232, but the Olathe district didn't have to pay for infrastructure -- such as roads, extra sewer connections or utility poles -- to the site.

Greg Thomasson, construction manager for Olathe, said the cost of Ravenwood was about $7.52 million for the actual construction. The total cost came to $8.2 million including the cost of change orders and planning and architecture, he said. Although that's almost a million less than De Soto's Prairie Ridge Elementary, the cost per square foot is similar -- $120.26 for Prairie Ridge and $122.35 for Ravenwood.

Inflation, however, made Ravenwood much more expensive than schools finished in previous years, Thomasson said.

"It was quite a bit more expensive than the schools just two years in front of it," he said. "They're quite similar in construction and design.

One idea the De Soto district is borrowing from Olathe is "flex" theaters. In the expansions for both De Soto High School and Mill Valley, De Soto plans to build multi-purpose rooms with small stages. Each would have removable seating, enough for a small audience of 200.

Olathe has flex theaters at two high schools, Thomasson said. He said in comparison with regular auditoriums that were large, costly and rarely used during the day, a "flex" theater was used throughout the day.

Although the Spring Hill school district serves a smaller population than USD 232, it also has a growing population. The district opened its newest elementary, Prairie Creek, at a cost of $8.63 million. In contrast to Olathe's Ravenwood, capacity 600, Prairie Creek is built for about 240 students. However, Superintendent Barton Goering said the school's cafeteria, library and common spaces were built to accommodate a 500-student enrollment. That will allow the district to add additional classrooms as the enrollment grows.

Goering said the cost for building for elementary students was much less than for high school students. Spring Hill is estimating a cost of $35 million for a new high school set to open in the fall of 2007 that would serve 800 students. The current high school will become a middle school.

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