(Oct. 3, 2014) The nearly $50 million price tag of a new school became an election issue when several acting and prospective Worcester County Commissioners questioned the cost during a candidate forum on Sept. 17.
The 100,000 square-foot Showell Elementary replacement school, currently in the early stages of planning, boasts an estimated total cost of $48.9 million, including a feasibility study and architectural and engineering design costs. The county estimates the total construction cost at $37.5 million.
Built in 1976 and modified in 1990, Showell Elementary accommodated students from preschool classes through fourth grade. Because of overcrowding, the county relocated the entire fourth grade to Berlin Intermediate School in 1999. Congestion also affected the second grade class, forcing students into nine portable trailers behind the main building.
Current enrollment at Showell Elementary is 568. The replacement school would hold up to 642 students and return the fourth grade.
Board of Education Facilities Planner Joe Price estimated the completion date as summer 2019, “if the project receives a green light at every step in the process for the next two years, without any interruptions to the estimated timeline.”
District 6 Commissioner Jim Bunting said during the forum that he spoke with officials in North Carolina who said their new high school cost $57 million – and held 2,500 students.
“The state requires us to spend a lot of money that I think is unnecessary for these buildings,” he said. “We don’t need to build Taj Mahal.”
Price balked at the comparison.
“We cannot speak to the factors affecting school construction in North Carolina, any other state, and even other Maryland school construction projects,” he said. “There are a number of factors, including availability of trade contractors, affecting the costs in each jurisdiction.”
Price said each state and jurisdiction have specific building codes. Worcester County, for example, must comply with codes associated with high winds because of its location within a hurricane zone.
Still, schools of a similar size and grade range seem to cost far less.
In 2009, the California Department of Education released a study on construction costs per school in the state. The average elementary school with 600 people cost $10 million, middle schools with 1,000 students averaged $18.3 million and the average high school with 1,800 students cost $39.4 million.
In Virginia, the state built two new elementary schools during the 2013-14 fiscal year. Combined, the two schools hold more than 1,500 students and cost $ 52.5 million.
In Wicomico County, the new Bennett Middle School, holding 968 students, had a construction cost of $31.3 million.
District 5 Commissioner Candidate Tom Wilson, a Democrat, defended the price tag of Showell.
“Realistically we’re building for 50 years into the future,” he said. “I don’t think it pays to scrimp and save to cut back on technology and make a cheaper, lower-quality building when we’re building something that’s going to be there for our kids – our children and maybe their children – 40 or 50 years into the future.”
Still, Wilson admitted he would prefer to see a more detailed cost analysis.
“My background is financial management and budget – I was finance director for the Peace Corps for five years,” he said. “We probably do need to do more thorough cost analysis, and I’d be happy to help with that. But I’m not going to make an off-the-cuff judgment that this is too expensive by looking at some random school in California or Virginia.”
Chip Bertino, the Republican challenger in District 5, said he supported the new school, but was alarmed at the cost.
“I think anytime we’re spending $48 million it needs to be scrutinized,” he said. “I want to see a new school for Showell. Having said that, I think it’s important we scrutinize the numbers.
“Forty eight million dollars is a heck of a lot of money for a grade school,” he said. “I think less could be spent, but before I say that specifically I’d want to be able to scrutinize what actually is included in that $48 million.”
District 4 Commissioner Virgil Shockley also was “a little shocked” by the price tag.
“I was thinking we could stay under $40 (million),” he said. “I don’t know what amount the state is going to end up paying for that.”
Shockley said the state adds approximately $3 million in costs because of green mandates, most of which the county already follows.
Showell might be the latest school to need a facelift, but several others in the county will need new construction or renovations in the near future, and Worcester County will again foot the vast majority of the bill.
Stephen Decatur Middle School is set to receive $9.2 million in improvements, including adding 20,000 square-feet to the existing school, which currently uses nine portable trailers as classrooms.
Pocomoke Middle School needs $2.8 million in renovations to replace its roof, which received a fair/poor rating during a 2013 inspection. Snow Hill Middle School also needs a new roof, estimated at $3 million.