Seattle’s new elementaries would be among state’s biggest most expensive

This month, Washington state’s two largest school districts are each asking voters for hundreds of millions of dollars to build, repair and upgrade schools.

Measures on Tuesday’s ballot in Seattle and Tacoma would each fund dozens of construction projects over the next decade, with both districts focusing on rebuilding old elementary schools.

But while Tacoma officials are requesting about $30 million for each of the eight elementaries in their proposal, Seattle is seeking about $42 million apiece for the six it wants to build.

The considerable cost differences illustrate how widely school-construction spending varies in Washington — and how Seattle Public Schools spends far more than other school districts in the state.

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A Seattle Times analysis found that the average price tag of the elementary schools in Seattle’s levy proposal is at least 20 percent higher than every similar project approved in the state in recent years.

The reason?

The buildings in Seattle’s proposal would be among the biggest elementary schools ever built in Washington — even though they would hold only slightly more students than average.

Put another way, each student at a new Seattle elementary would get more space — in the classroom, the gym and, according to floor-plan comparisons, especially in the library — than students at other districts.

Seattle’s proposal also includes above-average spending on planning and design.

The proposal comes as lawmakers are once again debating how to better fund the public-school system. Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom has said school districts should focus less on construction and more on what takes place inside the buildings.

The state does not keep a database of school-construction costs, and most districts don’t compare themselves to others.

Seattle school officials said their proposed buildings would be bigger than average because the district needs to add capacity to address overcrowding.

The officials declined to address comparisons related to per student building sizes, saying they suspected the data from other districts was inaccurate.

They also said their proposals are near national averages for building size and were carefully planned to meet Seattle’s needs.

“Seattle Public Schools has a fast-growing enrollment and levy funding, if approved, will pay for capital and technology projects throughout the region to ensure our students have safe and healthy school buildings,” district spokeswoman Lesley Rogers wrote in an email.

Edward Peters, a parent and construction expert who chairs a committee that advises Seattle school officials on levy projects, said bigger buildings benefit students.

“You do the best you can with the resources you have, and Seattle’s tax base allows it to build big,” said Peters, who lives in Seattle but manages the Edmonds School District construction department. “If kids are learning, that’s the whole point.”

8,000 more seats

In all, Seattle’s six-year, $695 million construction levy would repair or replace 17 aging buildings, upgrade technology districtwide and add nearly 8,000 seats.

It is appearing on the ballot alongside a three-year, $552 million operations levy that would fund a quarter of the district’s annual operating budget.

The construction levy would cost the owner of a $400,000 home about $100 more per year than the current rate, which is $285.

Among other projects, it would fund a new elementary on the Thornton Creek campus and total rebuilds of five elementaries: Arbor Heights, Genesee Hill, Olympic Hills, Wilson-Pacific and Wing Luke.

Four of the elementaries would hold 650 students each; Arbor Heights and Wing Luke would be built for 500 students with core facilities to allow for easy expansion to 650.

Seattle estimates the schools would cost between $38.9 million (Genesee Hill) and $43.2 million (Wing Luke).

That would make them Washington’s six most-expensive public-elementary schools in years.

By comparison, rural-school districts over the past three years have been asking for about $20 million for new elementaries, according to election records.

Suburban districts have been requesting about $30 million.

What drives the price?

How can an elementary school cost $42 million?

Local contractors say school-construction costs are driven by five major factors.

The first is building size, which is determined largely by special classrooms, the gym, library and cafeteria.

The four 650-student elementaries in Seattle’s proposal would be 91,000 square feet each.

The size is multiplied by construction cost per square foot: in Seattle’s proposal, $225 per square foot.

Then there are specific site costs, like demolishing the old building, redeveloping the playground and putting in new sidewalks.

In Seattle’s proposal, those add up to between $3 million and $5 million per school.

Inflation adds about 3 percent per year, or about $3.5 million per building for Seattle.

Finally, there are “soft costs,” for planning, design, permitting, taxes and reserves.

Seattle says its soft costs would be 51.75 percent of its construction costs, adding about $14 million.

Ninety-one thousand times $225, plus $4 million, plus $3.5 million, plus $14 million?

Forty-two million dollars.

Seattle school officials defended the accuracy of their calculations, citing detailed planning.

“There’s a lot of due diligence that’s been done here,” said Kirk Robinson, the Puget Sound area’s most experienced cost estimator, whom Seattle hired for the levy.

Robinson attributed the above-average pricetags to three of the five factors:

• Construction is more expensive in Seattle, he said, and the district favors long-lasting buildings that cost more up front.

But cost breakdowns provided by more than a dozen districts in the region show that Seattle’s construction costs aren’t actually above average. Many districts, including Tacoma, use $225 per square foot to estimate costs.

• Robinson also said Seattle faces above-average inflation because its levy would build schools far in the future.

But Tacoma’s construction timeline is very similar to Seattle’s, and several suburban districts aren’t far off.

• Finally, Robinson argued that Seattle’s proposed buildings would encounter unique site challenges, including a $1 million traffic light the district may be required to install outside Thornton Creek.

Unseen costs

High soft costs are also playing a role.

While Seattle’s proposal puts soft costs at 51.75 percent of construction costs, Tacoma and others estimate 45 percent.

Using 45 percent would lower Seattle’s costs by about $2 million per school, but Robinson said it’s not feasible.

“People do it, but I don’t know how,” he said.

He explained the costs in part by pointing to strict permitting requirements in Seattle.

But Ken Snyder, the longtime president of Graham Contracting, called permitting fees “peanuts.”

Snyder, who has built schools in Seattle and elsewhere, attributed Seattle’s high soft costs to a bureaucratic process and reliance on outside consultants.

“They don’t exactly run things lean down there,” he said.

It comes down to size

The biggest factor driving Seattle’s pricey proposal, according to cost breakdowns, is building size.

The 91,000-square-foot schools in the proposal would be the largest elementaries built in Washington since 1990, according to an Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction database.

Most new elementaries are about 65,000 square feet, according to the database.

A more precise and widely used measure, building square feet per student, also shows Seattle as an outlier.

Seattle’s 91,000-square-foot schools would have 140 square feet per student (its other two elementaries would have 166 square feet per student).

Most Washington districts are planning schools with about 115 square feet per student, according to breakdowns provided by more than a dozen districts.

OSPI’s standard is 125.

Portland used 129 in a 2011 bond that failed due to widespread concerns about cost.

Tacoma is planning for 118 — a 22-square-foot-per-student difference from Seattle that translates to nearly $6 million per school.

Seattle school officials noted their square footage per student is only slightly above national norms, and their buildings would include 3,100 square feet of child-care facilities some districts don’t provide.

But the buildings would also have bigger-than-average libraries and gyms, according to floor plans from several districts.

In Seattle’s 91,000-square-foot buildings, for example, the libraries would be 5,300 square feet and the gyms would be 9,100 square feet.

Tacoma’s proposal calls for libraries of 1,800 square feet and gyms of 3,900 square feet.