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THE HIGH COST OF HUNGRY DEVELOPERS: Paying through the nose for new schools?

Sidewalks, pedways, landscaping, traffic lights, roads -- the list is endless as CPS becomes a development anchor

COLUMBIA, 1/19/12  (Op Ed) --  In 2012 and again in 2014, Columbia Public Schools (CPS) will ask voters for bond debt totaling $100 million and one of the highest tax increases in recent memory, up roughly 12% from current levels.   If the bonds pass, CPS will have indebted itself  $325 million since 2002, with more tax increases to pay the debt certain to follow. 

Compare this amount to the prior decade, 1992-2002, during which CPS built four schools and took on a fraction of the debt:  $95 million.
 
As always, much of the money is pledged toward long-overdue projects like this year's version of air conditioning installation:  classroom trailer reduction.   School construction is also high on the list, but as past numbers show, the price of a new school has soared.   On a per student basis, school construction in Columbia, Mo. costs roughly 500% more than it did in 1994 -- $50,000 vs. $10,000. 
 
Certainly, costs have risen over the years -- about 50% across the board since 1994, if inflation meters are any guide. 
 
But the economy has also tanked and as private sector work has lagged, local developers have foisted an uncomfortable new role onto the school district.  Rather than building in areas already populated by potential students, CPS has allowed itself to become a costly anchor for future development in comparatively barren places.    
 
Around Battle High for instance, CPS is responsible for "the design and construction of all improvements on St. Charles Road," paying for roads, sidewalks, traffic signals, "all necessary related improvements to the intersection," landscaping on an adjacent road if it is developed further, and a pedway if one is ever required.  

All this expense will support a new subdivision adjacent to Battle High called Somerset Village. 
 
District officials "must also let [Somerset Village developer] St. Charles Road Development group provide input," or in other words, taxpayers must take direction from developers Rob Wolverton, Bob Pugh, the Bob LeMone estate, Tom and Scott Atkins, who sold the district the land for Battle High for over $3.1 million. 

Those are mighty pricey strings to attach to any sale, and could get pricier down the road in ways that are hard to predict.   A second new elementary school is planned for the same area, also on land St. Charles Road Development -- named for the slender two-lane country road to both schools -- sold to CPS.     
 
Four schools for the price of...?
 
Like clockwork almost every two years for the past two decades, voters have approved millions of dollars in bond debt:  1992, '94, '98, 2000, '02, '04, '07, '10, with votes pending in 2012 and 2014.  From 1992 to 2002, Columbia voters approved $95.25 million in bond debt, $34 million of which built three large, modern middle schools and one large, modern elementary school.   
 
 
1992 -- $15 million bond, including $7.2 million to build GentryMiddle School.

1994 -- $12.6 million bond, including $7.5 million to build Smithton Middle School.

1996 -- $12.75 million bond, including $8.3 million to build Lange Middle School.

1998 -- $19.9 million bond including $7.8 million to expand and renovate Rock Bridge HS.

2000 -- $35 million bond, including $10.7 million to build Paxton-Keeley Elementary School. 
 
 
Today, $75 million struggles to build one large, modern high school.  Originally pegged at $60 million, the price of Battle High at one point topped $100 million, before settling around $75 million.  During debate over the numbers, school board member Ines Segert spoke out, repeatedly decrying costs that were nearly double what they should have been, at a whopping $252 per square foot.   

"No item of the bond issue has garnered more discussion than the high school, especially the building’s $75 million price tag," the Trib reported in March 2010, just before Columbia's vote on the largest school bond issue in state history:  $120 million.  "Segert consistently has argued in long-range committee meetings that the high school’s price should be lower." 

Earning the nickname "Rolls Royce," "Cadillac" and "Taj Mahal," Battle High quickly became a poster child for the feeding frenzy a seemingly unlimited pool of taxes and bond debt can spark.   Is it "all about the children," as our leaders want us to believe?  Or -- with the constant threat of cuts to programs and people that help children -- is it really all about the pocketbooks of the development industry?  

Absolutely our children deserve the best places possible to learn.  But the history of these skyrocketing costs -- and how work has lagged on older schools in basic areas like air conditioning -- suggests something else is driving up the prices, something that has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with good old-fashioned greed. 

Greed may be good on Wall Street, but it's no good on St. Charles Road.


RELATED:
http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2010/jul/03/driving-forward-development/
http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2010/jul/15/high-school-cost-comes-over-budget
http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2010/jun/29/new-high-school-site-agreement-approved

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