Fast-growing Utah district losing race against inflation

The problems facing the Jordan School District in Sandy, Utah, seem so distorted that they are almost incomparable to District 51, but the themes are clear: sky-rocketing construction costs and a community bursting at the seams.

“It has exploded here,” said Barry Newbold, superintendent of Jordan School District. “Availability of materials is in such demand that we have to pay a competitive price for them.”

The inflation of those competitive prices is mind-numbing. A high school that cost $35 million to build in 1996 now costs $72 million, Newbold said. The cost of an elementary school has increased 72 percent since 2003.

Since 2003, Newbold said, the cost to install an electrical system ballooned 234 percent, and drywall costs rose 81 percent.

Newbold said the district decided to track construction costs after a $281 million bond, the largest in Utah’s history, was passed in 2003. Construction inflated so quickly that by the time the projects went to bid, Newbold said, the district discovered it could only afford to build 19 of the 22 schools it budgeted with the bond.

The district had budgeted $22 million for two middle schools and an elementary school, Newbold said, but in less than a year the cost of the two middle schools would have been $33 million, and the elementary school’s price tag was $18 million. Those projects have been put on hold indefinitely, he said, and voters decided to split the 81,000-student district, beginning in July 2009.

The district will be cleaved into an east and west areas, Newbold said. Growth in the west district, projected to be at least 20,000 students in six to 10 years, will make the situation even more dire,
Newbold said, because one of the shelved middle schools and the elementary school were supposed to be built in the west.

Newbold said the west district will have to bond again to build the schools and possibly raise taxes by as much as 30 percent just to maintain current levels of funding in the west because the majority of the district’s current tax base is in the east.

“It’s going to be difficult to go back to the community saying, ‘We need more money, and, oh by the way, we’re really sorry, but we couldn’t build those last schools,’ ” Newbold said.

The split of the district is being fought in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Newbold said, because only the residents in the east district were allowed to vote on the proposal.

Meanwhile, the district-wide needs in construction have inflated from $337 million in 2003 to $1.5 billion in 2008.


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