- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

BALTIMORE (AP) — Maryland school officials are struggling to keep up with renovation plans as school construction costs have soared 20 percent or more during the past year due to the rising costs for steel, petroleum-based materials, labor and fuel.

Officials throughout the state have been forced to delay, trim and retrench as they begin their annual search for more state and local funding.

“We’ve seen staggering construction costs. The cost of petroleum products affects almost every aspect of construction,” David Lever, executive director of the state’s Public School Construction Program, told the Baltimore Sun.

Costs per square foot are rising to the $210 to $225 range from about $176, Mr. Lever said.

The increases come at a time when contractors in the Baltimore-Washington area are flush with work and when skilled workers are in short supply for such jobs, which often require night and weekend work to avoid classroom disruptions.

“Across the state, it’s significant. It’s not just the dollars — it’s the availability of subcontractors. It’s a huge concern,” state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said.

Hurricane Katrina is just the latest factor.

The booming economies of China and India are blamed in part for higher gasoline and diesel prices and for a higher demand for such materials as steel, concrete and gypsum.

Last year’s Asian tsunami put a squeeze on the market for roofing and other construction materials, Mr. Lever said. Even tariffs on Canadian lumber have had an affect.

Cost increases have forced a few delays to Maryland school projects and cutbacks on some under way — but could take a bigger toll on future plans, officials said.

Montgomery County, the state’s largest school district, spent $40 million more than what it budgeted this fiscal year to pay for inflation in a $186 million building program, said Richard Hawes, director of facilities management for county schools.

But smaller, poorer jurisdictions don’t have the extra money to bridge those gaps.

In Allegany County, bids for the new Mountain Ridge High School in Frostburg, originally estimated to cost $31.5 million, came in at $40.5 million.

“We’ve seen unbelievable price increases,” said Vince Montana, school construction chief, who said the cost of roof insulation is up 150 percent in 18 months.

The increases forced a two-month delay in the Frostburg project and a rebidding of the project, minus landscaping, stadium parking, grandstands and a softball practice field. New bids came in at $38.6 million, and county officials will seek more state and county funding.

“We haven’t built a new high school in the last 50 years,” said Mr. Montana, who said the building is intended to replace two older buildings as part of a consolidation of schools in the economically depressed county.

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