- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2013

Forty-thousand dollars per student sounds like the annual price tag for tuition at a prestigious college. But it’s actually the projected cost to build a pre-kindergarten school in Austin, Texas, that has state officials sparring with the local school board.

Construction costs on the pre-K school — complete with a science lab — have reached a level that Texas Comptroller Susan Combs calls unacceptable.

“There was one right here in Austin which is the Anita Uphaus early education center, and I referred to it as [the] Taj Mahal for tots,” said Ms. Combs, who acts as the chief treasurer and accountant for the Lone Star state.

The total cost for the school is $14.6 million, according to documents from the Austin Independent School District and the construction company in charge of building it. With an enrollment of slightly fewer than 300 students, the cost to construct the building lies at more than $40,000 per student — more than double the average nationwide per-student cost — although there are plans to increase the student population.

According to the 35th annual Official Education Construction Report, published in 2009 by the American School and University, the cost of constructing elementary and pre-elementary schools was about $19,000 per student and $154 per square foot. Ms. Combs‘ evaluation of construction during the past seven years estimated the cost nationwide at $20,000 per student and $153 per square foot.

The Uphaus Center is estimated to cost $199 per square foot.

For letting construction costs grow at the expense of education, the Austin Independent School District wins the Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Washington Times to examples of excessive taxpayer spending.

Curt Shaw, a former director of construction management for the school district, said the price isn’t that different from those of other recent buildings. One elementary school cost $163 per square foot, another $207 per square foot.

Construction also must meet many environmental and building regulations imposed by the city, Mr. Shaw said.

“Doing business constructing in the city of Austin, there are a lot of specific requirements that we have to contend with that maybe other cities don’t,” he said.

The school also has been designed with many eco-friendly features that will save money, officials said, and the structures are built to last.

“The investment of a little more at the beginning of these design features plays itself out in operating costs over the long haul,” said Paul Turner, executive director of facilities at the Austin Independent School District. “Over that 50- or 75-year term, we’re going to recoup those costs in energy conservation.”

Plus, the school isn’t at its full capacity of 432 students, which would drop the per-student cost, though at close to $34,000, it still would be considerably pricier than the national average.

Regardless, Ms. Combs said, the school district has run up about $808 million in debt that taxpayers will owe.

“You have to find a way to manage your local expenses in a way that meets the local needs and doesn’t put everything into bricks and mortar but actually invests in the brains, invests in what’s up here as opposed to some of these superstructures,” she said.

School officials nationwide have been placing greater emphasis on pre-kindergarten education as studies show that good education at an early age can help students do better later on and improve graduation rates.

The facility was built in part to ease overcrowding. The school district now has 19,000 students using portable classrooms, said Jacqueline Porter, director of early childhood.

Along with the young children the school serves, high school students can help teach in the science lab and parents have a meeting space where they can get involved in their children’s education.

“By moving those children into their own spaces where everything’s tailored to fit their needs, their scores are exponentially better,” Ms. Porter said.

Often in the emphasis on curriculum, teachers and students, school construction can be overlooked. A study by Craig Howley, an education scholar at Ohio University, examined the best size for schools, specifically high schools. He found little scrutiny of how much it costs to build schools.

“Oddly enough, as often happens in education policy, no one really knows because no one has really asked,” said the study, published in 2008 in Educational Planning magazine. “Lack of scholarly interest in these questions is surprising, perhaps scandalous, in view of the large sums spent and the political battles often waged when new schools are built.”

Ms. Combs said she has faced resistance from state and local officials but wants them to be accountable for how they’re spending taxpayer funds.

“I was told, as I testified in the House Appropriations Committee, that it was too hard for any citizen to understand school construction costs unless they actually attended every meeting and stayed late at night,” she said. “We believe that it is incumbent upon any public official to tell the truth, to provide the data, to look for the best value, and don’t ever hide the numbers.”