The head of a large Baltimore construction company upbraided the Anne Arundel County school board yesterday for allowing the cost of new schools to spiral out of control with scant oversight and little regard for saving money.
Edward St. John, president of MIE Industries and chairman of the county's Blue Ribbon Commission on School Construction, said he visited the newly opened Davidsonville Elementary School and was stunned by what he saw as extravagance.
"I saw a lighthouse in the library. Nice touch," St. John told the school board. "I saw curved glass block walls. Nice touch. I saw 2 1/2 -story hallways. I saw porticos out front that went soaring up at one point, then down, then up, then down.
"I don't know what it costs, but no private investor could afford it."
Also yesterday, the school board gave Superintendent Eric J. Smith the go-ahead on plans to ramp up the number of Advanced Placement courses offered in county high schools and the number of students taking those classes.
To that end, Smith said the school system will begin paying for the cost of the AP exams students take - about $80 each - in the spring of 2004. Students now have to pay that fee themselves, and for some it can be prohibitive.
The school construction commission was formed in the spring by County Executive Janet S. Owens after the school system said it needed $20 million to build the new Seven Oaks elementary school, still in the planning stages.
After four months of meetings and study, the commission found that no one at the school system is responsible for containing costs, St. John said. Instead, he said, hired architects are given a budget based on a state formula for school construction, and they build to that cost.
"The cost of schools is a prophecy come true," he said. "You tell an architect to spend $20 million and they will. No one asked the architect to save money. No one said you're not going to have 2 1/2 -story hallways."
St. John said his commission visited a new private school, the School of the Incarnation in Waugh Chapel, and found a surprisingly handsome building that was built for $106 per square foot. Anne Arundel, meanwhile, is spending $145 per square foot on new schools.
"That is a significant difference that you cannot turn your back on," St. John said.
He said the school system does several things that add to the cost of schools: Walls are not always straight, but make turns at odd angles; roofs may be angled such that rainwater is piped into the school, then piped out, instead of running down waterspouts; extras are added, such as the model lighthouses and curved black glass at Davidsonville Elementary.
"The schools have to be simple in design," St. John said. "Your architect has to be kept under control."
St. John's commission will issue a report by the end of the year, but he said he already knows his top recommendation will be to form a commission of people in the construction field to monitor the costs of new schools, with the authority to rein in the architects.
School board members, who had thanked St. John for his frankness, bristled a bit at his suggestion.
"While the chair extremely appreciates the involvement of the commission and the county executive, the responsibility for school construction lies with the Board of Education," board President Michael J. McNelly said. "The county executive gives us the money, but we build the schools."
Board member Paul Rudolph of Severna Park, who has been critical of construction costs, said the board has only itself to blame. "If things have been done improperly, we need to point the finger at ourselves," he said.
Already, the new superintendent is making changes. Smith and his construction staff have cut the cost of the new Marley Elementary from $19.2 million to $16.3 million and cut the cost of the new Marley Middle School from $41.4 million to $32.9 million. Savings included reducing the amount of carpeting, the number of bathrooms and reducing the size of science labs and kitchens.
What's going on inside the schools got equal attention at yesterday's board meeting. Smith announced his plans to create a system of "AP certified high schools." To earn this certification, a school will have to offer 16 Advanced Placement courses, as well as have support systems in place for students and teachers.
One of the goals is to provide equal opportunities for students across the county. For instance, Broadneck High offers its students 24 AP courses, but Meade High offers only seven.
Smith also is considering bringing the challenging International Baccalaureate program to several county high schools.
School board members said they are excited about the focus on academics.
"We're in the midst of making history," said board member Tony Spencer of Annapolis.