How Much Should Anchorage Pay for a School?

Hey Anchorage, ready to play "let's build a school"? Think $460 per square foot is a fair price? Time to let the School Board hear what you think-now.

by Bob Griffin

Is Anchorage ready to vote on a bond to refurbish/remodel a school? That’s what the School Board will take up at its October 7th meeting. Get ready to hear “it’s all about the kids, we don’t care how much it costs because the taxpayer will bear the burden and the best part-the State of Alaska will kick in about 70% of the cost”. So it’s like getting a new car and you only have to pay 30% of the cost. It’s almost free!

However, let’s drill down into the facts. Unknown to the Anchorage citizen, the Anchorage School District has made a common practice of paying some day-to-day operating expenses with long-term bond debt.  For example, ASD employee salaries/benefits, advertising, utilities and short-term capital expenses have been rolled into the bond issue on the ballot. This would be similar to a person obtaining a 20 year mortgage for a home and using that mortgage to pay for the yard man, full-time maintenance person, janitor and utility bills. So, one would be paying principal and interest for each of these day-to-day costs. Aside from being a violation of the spirit and intent of the Municipal Tax Cap, this just isn’t good business practice. The rest of the story: the ASD “pockets” money left over from bond packages and uses it as discretionary funds (slush money) at a later date. In two building projects, Clark Middle School and Chester Valley, the ASD pocketed $6.0 million in long-term debt proceeds on items other than permits, engineering, design, construction and art. This money could be used for most anything the District desired. This slush fund money is also in the proposed construction estimates for the proposed Airport Heights bond. But what about the seemingly high construction costs for our schools?

Even when extraneous costs are removed, ASD construction costs seem exceptionally high for Anchorage. According to the highly respected RS Means Co which estimates construction costs, design and construction costs for Clark and Chester Valley schools should approximate $185 to $197 per square foot if they were built today. The actual cost for Clark MS was $318/sf in 2009 while Chester Valley Elementary cost $296/sf in 2010 (design and construction only).

The growth of the overall capital costs for the ASD is increasing at an unsustainable rate. Now, the School Board has been given four options for a future bond proposal for Airport Heights Elementary School.

  • Option 1-Retire the school at $0 cost
  • Option 2-A $15.4 million renovation
  • Option 3-A $24 million renovation
  • Option 4-A $29.3 million replacement

Here are some comparisons of these options to actual completed projects on a total $/square foot basis; Airport Heights School options are in red:

  • Option 4 Airport Heights School $29.3M——–$559
  • Dena’ina Convention Center————————$535
  • Option 3 Airport Heights School $24M———- $460
  • VA Clinic (2010)————————————–$415
  • Clark Middle School (2010)————————-$361
  • Chester Valley Elementary School—————–$337
  • Option 2 Airport Heights School $15.4M———$298
  • Eagle River HS (2004)——————————–$290
  • South High School (2001)—————————-$235
South High School–Remember half the cost of Airport Heights (sq ft)

What would you be willing to pay for renovation/remodel of the Airport Heights Elementary School? And remember, you will be paying for it through your property taxes. More importantly, will student achievement improve if this school is remodeled? Probably not, if Clark Middle School and other newly constructed Taj Majal-like schools are any indication.

The current renovation plan that is recommended by the ASD Staff is option 3–the $460/sq ft. This is the “Goldilocks” choice, not too much and not too little. This choice will look to the public like the District has done a “fine” job of  scrubbing the numbers and besides, it will be an easier sell on the ballot.

This plan is on a collision course with reduced funding from the State (aka 70% reimbursement) and will result in fewer teachers in the classroom, fewer special education teachers, and less classroom instruction. It seems as if the District has an “edifice complex” which subscribes to the old military maxim, “if it looks good, it must work”. Beautiful Taj Majal buildings do not lead to better education. An effective teacher in every classroom does. Let’s work on that-for the kids.

Here’s your choice: either take the ASD recommendation above or submit your comments to the School Board by email, by phone or in person. It’s time to take a stand for the kids. I am.