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Sunday, September 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:20 AM

New schools increasingly upscale, but also pricey

Seattle Times staff reporter

In the midst of the 1960s, with young families filling the suburbs, the Edmonds School District built new high schools hurriedly and on the cheap. Flat-roofed and modular, with open breezeways ill-suited to the rain, they were as like one another as the tract houses of the surrounding subdivisions.

Over the past 15 years, the increasingly upscale district has replaced three of its four high schools with modern, architecturally striking buildings. Edmonds-Woodway High, which opened in 1998 at a cost of $43.2 million, features a great hall for concerts, a terraced outdoor seating area at a safe distance from the street, and educational "neighborhoods" designed to break down the scale of the 1,600-student school.

Now the district is planning to replace Lynnwood High School, the last of its "California-style" schools. But voters have twice balked at paying for the new school. In February, they will again be asked to approve a construction-bond measure that includes a school comparable in size, quality and features to the award-winning Edmonds-Woodway High.

The price tag for a new Lynnwood High? $86 million.

Construction projects in other districts reflect the same spiraling costs. The renovations and new additions under way at Seattle's historic Roosevelt and Garfield high schools are budgeted at $88 million and $86.5 million, respectively.

Tacoma voters in 2001 approved a construction bond that included $77.7 million for a new Mount Tahoma High and $103 million to renovate Stadium High School, an 1893 luxury-motel-turned-school, long a city landmark.

"We knew it was going to be expensive, that it would be a lot cheaper to tear it down and build a new school," said Pete Wall, director of planning and construction for the Tacoma School District. "But that never entered our thinking. It's too much a part of the city's history."

The high cost of new high schools can be traced largely to the steep rise in the price of construction materials over the past two years. Where school planners had for years calculated a 3 percent inflation factor, last year the cost of materials jumped 15 to 30 percent because of the high demand from China for raw materials, particularly steel. The 2010 Vancouver, B.C., Olympics are expected to keep the local demand for building materials and labor high.

"It's not just the cost of school construction, it's construction in general. It's skyrocketing," said Janell Weihs of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

New learning design

But the high cost of new schools also reflects the increasing sophistication of the high schools themselves. Today's high schools typically include industrial-sized and -equipped kitchens, science labs, performing-arts centers, video-production studios and advanced technology in the classrooms and also to run the school.

"We're building more and more complex buildings," said Carter Bagg, Northwest regional facilities coordinator for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees school-construction projects. "These schools require a lot of highly specialized construction."

Mount Tahoma High School, which opened last year, features four academies on two floors connected by a sky bridge. A domed entryway and commons frame views of Mount Rainier. The athletic complex includes a swimming pool, stadium, multiple fields, a track and all-weather turf, as well as locker rooms, weight room and training facilities.

But some districts have built high schools for less. The new Redmond High School, which opened in 2003, before the recent price jump, cost $53 million. A new high school planned to open in Snohomish in 2008 is expected to cost $66 million.

In the White River School District, where a new high school opened in 2003 at $54.5 million, administrators said they deliberately chose a building that would be "mid-range" in quality and cost.

"We didn't want a school that would fall apart after a short period, but we also didn't want one so high-end that we'd be open to criticism of wasting taxpayer money," said Roger Marlow, assistant superintendent.

Saving old schools is often more expensive than building new ones. The renovation of Garfield High is expected to cost $275 per square foot, compared with the $142 per square foot it cost to build a new Ballard High School back in 1999. But Seattle residents have fought to preserve historic schools that in many cases share the name of the surrounding neighborhood.

"Roosevelt is not just a neighborhood landmark. It's a city of Seattle landmark," said Lanie Johnson, a neighborhood business owner who served on the Roosevelt construction advisory committee.

When it opens next fall, Roosevelt High will sport a completely restored Georgian facade, reconfigured classrooms, modern science labs and a sky-lit library. A new wing featuring a performing-arts center, public plaza and a gymnasium can be used by the public while the rest of the school remains secured. The new wing, which will stand at a right angle to the historic school, will almost double Roosevelt's size to 267,000 square feet.

"In the end, it's going to be an absolutely wonderful school," Johnson said.

For suburban schools, purchasing land and preparing new sites can add significantly to the cost, said Scott Hodgins, executive director of capital projects for the Snohomish School District. Snohomish paid $10.5 million earlier this year for 63 acres where it will build the new high school and an elementary school.

The district will be expected to pay for new roads, sidewalks, traffic lights and sewer lines. It must also comply with extensive environmental requirements to control water runoff and minimize traffic and noise. In all, Hodgins said, the site work will cost about $12 million of the projected $66 million cost.

Building to last

Rising construction standards in the state have also contributed to higher school costs. From 1969 until 1993, the state paid to replace schools after only 20 years. Now it requires schools to last at least 30 years, and many districts, including Edmonds, are choosing materials designed to last 50 years.

The state also this year adopted sustainable-building standards for schools that are being phased in over the next four years. The standards require more energy-efficient systems, better indoor air quality and adequate natural lighting and encourage the use of materials with low environmental impacts. Nationally, these "green" schools have cost 2 to 4 percent more than those that use traditional materials, said OSPI's Bagg.

Focus on flexibility

Changing theories about effective teaching and student learning also drive the design — and cost — of new schools. New schools are wired for computers and equipped with viewers and printers capable of capturing an image from the Internet, projecting it and printing it out.

And while many districts are designing high schools that can be organized into academies or smaller "schools within schools," other facility planners, who have seen new concepts come and go, say they're trying to design for flexibility.

Mountlake Terrace High School was the first of the Edmonds School District high schools to be rebuilt, in 1991. While modern in style, the layout is traditional — academic wings along separate halls. When the school received a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant in 2001 to reconfigure the school into five smaller academies, administrators found the layout hard to change.

"They called and asked if they could move walls," said Ed Peters, capital-projects director for the Edmonds School District. "The building is getting in the way of what they want to do."

The working design for the new Lynnwood High allows for a variety of educational models. The science labs are stacked on top of each other and connected by both a stairway and a dumbwaiter, so teachers and equipment can move between floors. The building will accommodate wired and wireless technology. It will work for a school organized by departments and one organized by small schools or academies.

"What if in 20 years we say, 'small schools? What was that all about?' We're trying to build for a variety of uses because we know it's going to change," Peters said.

Is it worth it?

A new school can create a whole new educational environment and re-energize faculty and students, said Charles Chinn, former principal at both the old and new Ballard high schools. He said the new Ballard High attracted better students, raised overall achievement and was a catalyst for reconnecting the school with alumni and the neighborhood.

Few people in the Edmonds School District question the need to replace Lynnwood High School. The interior is dark and poorly lit. The gym floods during heavy rains. Extension cords crisscross the library to power computers.

"Even the most committed alums say it was an ugly building when it was built," said Peters.

But is $86 million too much?

Bookmarked on Peters' office computer is a photo of his elementary school in South Bend, Ind., a stately brick building with terrazzo floors, limestone trim and pillars fronting the wide entry stairs. The city in which he grew up found the money to build the school in the midst of the Great Depression.

"That building says that education is important and the community supports it. There wasn't a doubt in my mind about that, even as a little kid."

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or

Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company



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