The Arlington School Board’s internal auditor plans to take a crack at a vexing question: Why does it cost so much more to build a school in Arlington than elsewhere? Or does really cost that much more, after all?
Comparing school construction costs will be part of the work plan of John Mickevice, who on Oct. 19 outlined his 2017-18 efforts to the School Board.
School officials have agreed to hire an adviser to help Mickevice study school-construction costs. He told School Board members he plans to take an apples-to-apples approach.
“We want the consultant to find school districts that are comparable,” Mickevice said, apparently meaning those with similar extensive community-engagement processes and a focus on environmental sustainability.
School-construction costs represent “a question that we, and the County Board, get on a regular basis,” said School Board member Nancy Van Doren.
That Arlington’s school-construction projects come with high costs attached is hardly a surprise. To cite one example: A 2010-11 Virginia Department of Education report compared the cost of the new Wakefield High School with the two other high schools under construction in Virginia that year, and found Arlington’s costs were significantly higher.
Wakefield cost $202.56 per square foot compared to $148.74 for a new high school in Loudoun County and $120.64 for a new high school in Clarke County, according to state data. On a per-student basis, costs were $40,681 for Wakefield, $31,080 in Loudoun and $26,357 for Clarke County.
(And while they were not built at exactly the same time, Wakefield’s construction was also significantly more expensive than Alexandria’s new T.C. Williams High School, located just a few miles to the east.)
“We think we have good explanations” for the higher costs of various projects, Van Doren said. “This will be an excellent opportunity to look into that.”
Tim Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association (ACTA), said he was gratified that the auditor was taking a look at the situation – and unlike Van Doren, he questioned whether the school system’s explanations for high costs were valid.
“ACTA has frequently pointed out the high cost of new construction,” Wise said. “Hopefully, the internal auditor will be able to tell Arlington taxpayers why it was necessary, for example, to build a school with 143 square feet per pupil and a building cost of almost $289 per square foot for the elementary school at the Williamsburg site, while Prince William County provided 119 square feet per pupil with a building cost of less than $151 per square foot.”
Mickevice was hired by the School Board in 2014, a period when Arlington residents were rebelling against gold-plated capital projects. He reports directly to board members through an audit committee, not up through Superintendent Patrick Murphy.
Mickevice said he had received cooperation and support from school staff. “There’s respect on both ends – I’ve been able to do what I’m asked to do,” he said.
Murphy called Mickevice “very deliberate and straightforward in his work.”
Also on the auditor’s plate for the coming school year: Looking at cost controls for gate receipts at high-school sporting events; examining procedures for school-facility rentals; and looking at the process for the school system getting back its materials – from textbooks to laptop computers – once students are done with them.
“That is also something we get asked about,” School Board Chairman Barbara Kanninen acknowledged.