Earlier this week, WSB-TV reporter Richard Belcher reported that the new North Atlanta High will be the most expensive public high school in Georgia history.
District 4 Board of Education Member Nancy Meister on July 18 provided a lengthy and detailed response to that claim. Belcher also responded to Meister’s letter. Both letters are reprinted beneath this article.
The new school, located on Northside Parkway, will open in about three weeks.
In his report, Belcher estimated the cost of the new school will be just shy of $150 million. He compared the costs with other metro Atlanta High schools, subtracting the $56.5 million cost of the land purchase because the cost of land in Atlanta is more expensive compared with other areas. Using $82.6 million as its starting point, Belcher found the next most expensive high school was Archer High in Gwinnett County, estimated to cost $50.6 million.
Read the full WSB story here.
Meister said the school’s cost reflects its capacity. The new North Atlanta will be able to hold 2,400 students. Its current projected enrollment is 1,650, according to the WSB story.
“While the total cost of this project is more than others, it is the result of the overall square footage being significantly higher,” Meister wrote.
Reporter Newspapers sent Belcher a copy of Meister’s letter and he responded with an equally-lengthy defense of the story.
“We deliberately removed the land cost from our comparison and clearly stated that real estate in that part of Atlanta is more expensive than anywhere else,” Belcher wrote. “We also mentioned that unforeseen rock was a significant contributor to the $13.6 million change order. According to documents we reviewed, ‘rock and unsuitable soils’ was responsible for $5.85 million of the change order, and the Davis Bacon wage premium was worth $1.15 million Take those away from the $82 million figure we used, and you still have a $75 million high school – 50 percent higher than Gwinnett’s Archer High School, which came in at $50 million.”
From Nancy Meister:
District 4 Constituents
The beginning of 2013-2014 school year is just three weeks away and the opening of the new North Atlanta High School makes this a very exciting and busy time for our community. As a result of a recent news clip, I have received many phone calls about the reported cost of this project. While it is easy to compare this campus to others in the county and state, it is also very important to understand the constraints, variables and process that took place along the way.
Capacity in the northern cluster has skyrocketed over the last ten years and the retention rate in grades K-12 has grown significantly. This facility can accommodate 2400 students, a number that is projected in the coming years. This is 750 students more than the reported 1650.
When looking for a location, many sites from limited inventory were considered in the process. Most were not suitable when due diligence was performed. The 56.6 acre IBM site was deemed suitable and was purchased for $55.3M. An appraisal performed in 2011 estimated the market value, as improved, at $118.0M. The land value was appraised at $51.5M and the existing improvements at $66.5M. This is roughly $977,093 per acre. Other sites within the district, had they been suitable, averaged $1,365.2M per acre.
At 507,093 sq. ft., the new NAHS is roughly 30% larger than the next largest APS high school, Mays HS at 339,758 sq. ft. All of the district high schools were either renovated or built on existing APS property, therefore there were no land acquisition fees involved. If you remove the cost of the land for NAHS and look at project expenditures across the district at constant dollar (base year 2013), the cost per square foot at NAHS is $180.23, BEST Academy is $212.47, Carver HS is $185.42, Therrell HS is $181.78 and CS King Academy is $181.12. It was previously reported in 2010 that our neighboring county DeKalb, spent $222.00 per sq. ft. for Tucker HS in 2010, $176.83 for Arabia Mt HS in 2009. While the total cost of this project is more than others, it is the result of the overall square footage being significantly higher.
It is also important to understand that because this project is being funded with federal dollars (COP bonds), the project falls under the Davis Bacon Act which requires contractors to pay “prevailing wages”, as determined by the Secretary of Labor. This is based by region and represents roughly a 16% increase in Atlanta. The labor costs on this project are simply higher.
It was reported that APS is spending $8.5M for athletic fields and there is no stadium and other schools have spent $4.5M to $5.9M just for a stadium. It is important to know that at NAHS, APS is spending $8.7 for a number of athletic facilities including a football field and track with seating for 525, three tennis courts with bleacher seating, softball, baseball field and a practice field. Lighting, turf where designated, irrigation and restrooms are included in this figure. Currently, it is Board policy that all high schools utilizes our two stadiums, Grady and Lakewood for football and track. No APS high school currently has a designated stadium.
Lastly, it was reported that there was an additional $13.0M request that came before the Board recently. The request was made as a result of unforeseen issues that are typical in construction projects. Unsuitable soil, substantial amount of buried trash under the parking lots that had to be removed and replaced with crushed rock, floor leveling throughout the building after carpeting was removed and prior to tile being installed, temporary facilities to accommodate Fine Arts, Athletics and JROTC until Dec 2013 and the Department of Labor challenged the prevailing wage rate for demolition and site work as well as asbestos removal. While the Board did approve a portion of this request it did not approve roughly $1.0M in APS design changes.
This is a very exciting time for our community and for APS. The opening of this state of the art facility that is unique to the city, state and probably nation, will be a landmark for the Atlanta Public School system. It is my hope that this information will inform the public on the project and associated costs.
ABE District 4
From Richard Belcher, WSB-TV:
Thanks for the opportunity to respond. Ms. Meister had not sent us her letter, so I’ll respond to her response. We deliberately removed the land cost from our comparison and clearly stated that real estate in that part of Atlanta is more expensive than anywhere else. We also mentioned that unforeseen rock was a significant contributor to the $13.6 million change order. According to documents we reviewed, “rock and unsuitable soils” was responsible for $5,850,000 of the change order, and the Davis Bacon wage premium was worth $1,150,000. Take those away from the $82 million figure we used, and you still have a $75 million high school – 50% higher than Gwinnett’s Archer HS, which came in at $50m.
A close reading of BOE documents will reveal that the initial estimate for the NAHS project – not including land – was $45 million. At one point, that dropped to $42 million, according to the website www.financial-deconstruction.com. Then suddenly it was $70m. And today it is $91m, including the athletic fields. That’s quite a jump. I don’t recall a spirited BOE or public debate about that near doubling of the cost ($42m to $82m – leaving out $8.7m for the athletic fields).
We believe it is reasonable to compare APS’s spending to the spending in other districts, most of whose students are performing at least as well and often better than those in APS. I believe APS already outspends every other Georgia school district in per-pupil operating costs. (If that is incorrect, I’m sure APS will let me know.) In addition, the district enjoyed tremendous private support from the Atlanta business community and non-profits such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation over the past decade. Yet, the district’s 4-year graduation rate was 50.9% in 2012. And that was down from 2011. As we reported in our story, North Atlanta also dropped from 2011 to 2012. A reasonable person might conclude that money does not translate into higher performance.
So, by what objective measures will Atlanta taxpayers know whether the $148 million spent on North Atlanta was a good investment? And when? We provided our figures to Ms. Meister weeks before the story aired, and those figures found their way to the central office. Yet no one from the administration and no member of the BOE would agree to answer questions on camera about the extraordinary cost of NAHS. Why not?