The Hamilton County School Board recently voted to build two new schools and to renovate several others. The total price tag is approximately $125 million dollars, and the projects are expected to be approved by the Hamilton County Commission this month. This, after much debate in recent years over why Hamilton County school construction costs more than new schools across the state line in Georgia.  

Walker County's Saddle Ridge Elementary School is a prime example. The luxurious K-8 school was built four years ago, with a majestic design on the outside, and many extras on the inside, like 32 private, single-stall restrooms. Hamilton County officials crossed the state line to tour it earlier this year, proclaiming it "amazing." They were further amazed to learn the school was constructed for only $15 million dollars.  

Recent cost estimates for similar, soon-to-be built schools in Hamilton County are considerably higher. Harrison Elementary is 80 years old, and its replacement building on a site about a mile away, is estimated to cost almost $30 million, while a new East Hamilton Middle is on the drawing board at $38 million. A proposed K-12 school for Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts was estimated to cost between $54 and $64 million, before being shelved in favor of a move to a renovated Tyner Middle Academy building (Tyner Middle students will move to a renovated Tyner High Academy across the street, giving Hamilton County two high schools across the street from each other for the first time in the county's history).

Why are Hamilton County's construction costs seemingly much higher than our neighbors across the state line? We asked Justin Witt, the school district's assistant superintendent for facilities. He says the recession and the economic recovery have played a role.

Witt said, "We tracked the costs from 2007 to 2011 to now. There's been a constant rise in the construction market. Contractors are busy.  We've talked to other districts and they're seeing the same trend."  

A ten-year look at area school construction trends proves Witt is right. In 2009, Hamilton County's East Ridge Elementary was built for $120 per square foot.  Walker County's Saddle Ridge, built five years later was slightly higher, at $130 per square foot.  But by 2014, Hamilton County's Middle Valley Elementary was up to $192 per square foot, and Cane Ridge Elementary School, in the Nashville district, was just completed at $207 per square foot.  Both of the new schools scheduled for construction in Hamilton County are estimated at $200 per square foot.

In addition, Witt points to Hamilton County's energy efficiency programs that he says will pay for themselves in lower utility bills over the life span of each facility. In particular, Hamilton County's newer schools utilize geothermal heating and cooling. Witt said, "Basically it uses the ground to cool water in the summer, and to warm water in the winter with the constant temperature of the earth." Witt adds, "Not only is it energy efficient, but it's been a low maintenance system as well."

In fact, while Hamilton County's overall school building square footage has increased in the past ten years, energy usage has remained the same. Utility costs for gas, water and electricity have not increased, according to Witt, due to improved HVAC systems, lighting, insulation, roofing and maintenance. The state average for energy usage is $1.68 per square foot, compared to only $1.35 for Hamilton County.  Witt estimates an annual savings of $2.5 million in utility costs.  Witt said the expected HVAC system life of the rooftop unit at Saddle Ridge is fifteen years, while the geothermal systems being used in Hamilton County have expected lifespans of thirty years.

And while Hamilton County gradually replaces buildings ranging in age from 75 to 100 years old, Witt says today's taxpayers must watch out for future generations, ensuring that these new investments are built to last, with no corners cut, and no shortcuts were taken.

Witt said, "We're a school system and we're not going anywhere. We don't renovate every 5 years.  When we build, we build for the future. We invest in longevity."

We contacted our neighboring Georgia school districts about new construction in the years to come.  While new schools are on the drawing board in Whitfield County and Dalton, there are no plans to use geothermal heating and cooling.  Catoosa County used it in both Heritage High and Middle a few years ago, and plans to install the system in an upcoming renovation at Graysville Elementary School.

According to the School Planning and Management's 2014 construction report,  The median cost per square foot to build an elementary school in Tennessee is $191, compared to $133 for Georgia.

School districts in the United States spent more than $14 billion ($14,123,865,000) on construction projects completed during the 2014 calendar year. Almost $7.8 billion of that was spent on new schools, accounting for 55 percent of the construction dollars.

The balance was split between additions to existing buildings (accounting for $3.2 billion) and the retrofitting and modernization of existing structures that accounted for $3.14 billion. The difference of spending for new buildings and existing ones was very close to the pattern of the previous year.

Looked at in terms of on-going educational construction, school districts in the United States appear to be involved in almost $40 billion worth of construction activity right now, and that is probably a low-ball estimate.

In 2014, the median elementary school in the United States cost $211.55 per square foot to build. Median spending was $43,693 per pupil and the median elementary school provided 188 square feet for each student. The median elementary school reported was designed for 624 students and encompasses 84,700 square feet at a total cost of $16,269,543.

The median cost of a middle school is $242.96 per square foot. Median spending per pupil was $43,635 and the median middle school provides 173.4 square feet per student. The median number of students in middle schools built in 2014 is 612 and the building size is 118,500 square feet. The cost is $26.5 million.

The median high school cost $45 million and provided 173,727 square feet. It was designed to accommodate 1,000 students. The median high school provides 180 square feet per student at $49,000 for each student. The cost per square foot was $235.29.


Source: School Planning & Management's 20th Annual School Construction Report