Monday, October 10, 2005

Solving school overcrowding

Lots of stories lately about the struggles growing school districts face building enough schools.

Districts like Beaverton are adding the equivalent of a school building worth of students each year. But land and construction costs are hugely expensive, and few districts have current bond issues sufficient to build the needed schools.

The only solution they can conceive is to ask the voters for a bond to build more brick and mortar.

This is the wrong answer for a couple reasons. First - school districts are demonstrably incompetent at building schools. The going rate for a 600 student elementary school is about $12 million. That is $20,000 per student-seat, or, if annualized comes to about $1,000 per student per year. High schools are even more costly. Plus, huge cost overruns are the rule in school construction. Projects almost never come in on budget. Prevailing wage regulations balloon the cost, and land prices are outta sight.

So you would think that school districts would be looking for any alternative they could find to building more school buildings. But they aren't.

What possible alternatives, you ask? Here are a couple:

1) Encourage parents to enroll their kids in a virtual charter school. The Oregon Connections Academy is off and running fast. If a school district wanted to take pressure off its facilities capacity, why not assist parents in taking advantage of this new and innovative program? The best part is that the district still gets 5% of the state funds allocated to the district for the student! In other words, for every student from the district they enroll in the virtual school, they get $250, and they do not have to educate him!

2) Did you know that there are several national charter school management organizations waiting to be invited into a district to start a school, and the companies will build the school building at no taxpayer expense? So a district like Beaverton, who is just about to ask voters for $200 million plus to build a bunch of schools, could simply contract with one of these companies to build the schools instead. They would have new schools without new taxes. Why is this not even on the table? Why doesnt' the Oregonian EVER ask this question in their stories about school bonds?

A case in point is Portland Public Schools, who are looking for ways to pay for the new school they want to build in the Columbia Villa housing project. They want to borrow about $8 million and patch the rest together from donations. This of course is at the same time they are contemplating which schools they will be closing in the next year because of enrollment declines!

Months ago I approached the District and the Housing Authority of Portland with an idea: Instead of spending public money to build the school, why not contract with an already approved but not yet opened charter school to build and run the school? Mosaica Education, which is the school management company behind the "Portland Arts and Sciences Academy" which the district approved back in 2001 has expressed its willingness to build the school at no taxpayer expense and run it as a charter.

No interest. I got the runaround for a couple months before I finally got a response, something on the order of : "Director Wynde says they want to pursue other options for the school."

Which I can only take to mean that the district would rather spend $12 million in public money to get something that they could get for no taxpayer dollars.

And they wonder why the public has a decreasing appetite for tax hikes?


Chris McMullen said...

Once again Rob, you've posted another erudite and sensible article. Thanks for your common-sense approach to our school "problems." I'd like to add that home-schooling and private schools are additional options that help reduce PS crowding.

As a Beaverton resident, I'll be active in campaigning against this unnecessary tax and will make sure to use your alternatives as viable options.

P.S. I'm curious how much the additional students in Beaverton are due to illegal immigration?

Bailie said...

What is wrong with utilizing school buildings 12 months out of the year? I amazes me that this isn't given more thought. Can you imagine Intel (or any other business) saying they would use their buildings only nine or ten months a year? With buildings so expensive, the thought of leaving them idle is absurd.