Panel criticized on new schools' cost


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."

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, 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."

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.

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 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."

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