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A new model for school construction

Obscured by the smoke of another Board of Public Works rant this week from Comptroller Peter Franchot about air conditioning in Baltimore County schools was an important discussion about whether Maryland is building the right kind of schools in the right way. Essentially, it boils down to this: By policy, tradition and conventional wisdom, Maryland's local jurisdictions typically build schools designed to last for 60 years or more, but that is extremely expensive and getting costlier by the year. If we built schools using less expensive techniques and less robust systems, would we come out ahead, even if the schools only last 25 years?

Among the things Mr. Franchot and Gov. Larry Hogan grilled Interagency Committee on School Construction director David Lever about Wednesday were the findings of his investigation into the Monarch Global Academy, a contract school built in fast-growing West Anne Arundel County to alleviate overcrowding at three nearby elementaries. The school was constructed with a number of value engineering techniques that made it far less costly to build than a traditional county school — more than 25 percent cheaper on an apples-to-apples basis. Among other things, it used substantial amounts of pre-engineered materials, as opposed to traditional on-site construction, and individual room heating and cooling systems rather than central HVAC.

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Monarch may not be a perfect model for other schools — because it has an enrollment cap, it doesn't need the kind of flexibility a traditional neighborhood school does to accommodate growth, and because of its academic model, it lacks certain facilities that other schools serving 7th and 8th graders would have. But it also begs the question of whether the specifications most Maryland jurisdictions use — in terms of square feet per classroom, width of hallways, and so on — are really necessary.

It's also worth considering whether building schools to last 60 or more years makes sense at all. Consider how much the facilities needs of Baltimore City schools have changed since 1955, for instance, not to mention the question of what our schools ought to look like in 2075. Populations move around, and building with a shorter time horizon might well provide districts with flexibility they will ultimately need. It may even be worth going so far as to design schools with an eye toward their post-school life. Some schools can easily be adapted to other uses, but many, particularly those thrown up quickly to deal with the baby boomers, cannot.

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Another big question is what effect less expensive specifications and construction techniques will have on long-term costs for operations and maintenance. Messrs. Hogan and Franchot spent several minutes browbeating Mr. Leaver on the delays in his agency's reports on local school districts' school maintenance programs, with Mr. Franchot huffing that when counties "come forward to request money, they should be held accountable for taking care of what they have. Systems' track records on maintenance should be taken into account when we decide where to invest limited taxpayer dollars." True enough. But taxpayers would also doubtless be interested to know whether the capital investments state and local governments make are going to saddle them with bigger costs down the road. Mr. Franchot renewed his call for the Interagency Committee on School Construction to change its policy and allow state funds to be used to buy window air conditioning units, but the IAC has repeatedly resisted that idea on the grounds that it doesn't want to invest limited taxpayer dollars on non-permanent improvements that come with high maintenance and energy costs.

To say there are contradictions inherent in the positions Messrs. Hogan and Franchot expressed is not a reflection on them so much as the frustrations of the people they represent. Both of them have heard earfuls from parents fed up with the conditions in which their children are supposed to learn, but they were both also elected on platforms of fiscal austerity. Maryland has invested record amounts in school construction during the last decade, yet its schools still use 3,000 portable classrooms, a.k.a. trailers, and tens of thousands of students still go to school in outmoded facilities where the lack of air conditioning is just one concern among many.

Something has to give, and building cheaper schools doubtless seems like an attractive solution. To some extent, it almost certainly is. School systems need to be willing to pursue innovative designs and to think critically about what's really necessary when they build new schools. But we also need to proceed cautiously. We're saddled with our current situation because taxpayers under-invested in school construction and renovations in decades past. We don't want to saddle future generations with a different flavor of the same problem.

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