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Knox County School Costs Probed

by Sanford Loy

Knox County Commissioner Mike Hammond, (who agrees we are “apparently” paying too much for schools), asked me the multi-million dollar question, “Why are we spending so much to build our schools?”

I responded there are three areas which typically contribute to inflated costs in public building projects across the country, and Knox County is not likely to be an exception. Those three areas are:

1) Bureaucratic type “culture intangibles” such as “maintaining the status quo”, apathy, political agendas, duplication of services, and resistance to change or new methods, etc.

2) Costs inherent to the traditional design-bid-build method.

3) Costs which could be avoided with more progressive delivery systems.

While the first one is difficult to quantify or change, by focusing on improvements in the other two areas, the first one will be greatly diminished. We must take advantage of every opportunity to cut costs if we want to maximize value.

Over the coming weeks I will examine the aspects of these areas and hopefully provide some common sense explanations which will allow you to make your own decisions about whether they are valid or not. One of my objectives is to present information about project delivery methods being implemented in other counties and states; which could be used in Knox County to help our tax dollars go further, while providing better facilities for our children.

It would seem prudent to first consider the argument given by administrators; that Knox County schools cost more because “Knox County schools” are “built to higher standards than those in surrounding counties.” At last month’s commission meeting about the BOE’s proposed capital plan this was the primary point of contention. As the commissioners bantered about their opinions, yours truly became an unsolicited topic of conversation when Commissioner Lambert stated, “Sandy Loy has built several award winning schools in several counties cheaper than those being built in Knox County.”

Sam McKenzie took Lumpy to task on his comments suggesting that “While I am sure Mr. Loy’s firm does a fine job I believe if you spoke to the folks in Claiborne County they would tell you they would have liked to have gotten more, not from the construction aspect but from the facilities standpoint.”

Mr. McKenzie claimed that comparing Claiborne to Hardin Valley or Austin East is comparing “apples and oranges”. If this sort of statement is repeated enough times it becomes perceived as fact, when the true fact is, more often than not, the people making those comments have never physically visited these “other schools.”

I don’t claim to be an “educational program” expert nor have I seen every new school in East Tennessee; but I am intimately familiar with several schools built in the last 8 years, including Claiborne High (CHS). CHS has every amenity any educator/parent/student could want: fully equipped laboratories, library, auditorium, band room, green houses, geothermal HVAC system, TSAA regionally qualified gymnasium, football stadium, field house, softball field, soccer field, baseball field, track, cosmetology area, agriculture lab, building trade area, floral design lab, individual band practice rooms, computer lab, teacher lounges, medical clinics etc.

Does your area high school in Knox County have all those amenities? I suggest that CHS is possibly superior to most Knox County High Schools in terms of facilities. Given the relatively well known fact that Knox County is a much wealthier county than Claiborne, one has to again ask, why? Or maybe, how?

The Director of Claiborne County Schools, Dr. Eddie Shoffner, said in a written statement, “The CM Agency method” (a progressive project delivery method we will discuss in Part IV), “served us very well and saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars. I would highly recommend it to anyone considering building a school.”

Kent Rose, a Carter High School Alumnus, community leader, and parent/grandparent called me after watching the last Commission meeting and asked me to arrange for him to tour Claiborne High School so he could see for himself how it stacks up. Kent has been a licensed general contractor his entire adult life, and his statement after seeing the school was, “I am stunned…this school is unbelievable. This is nicer than any school I have seen in Knox County…it is second to none in terms of materials and quality. I don’t know how anyone can say this school is inferior to schools anywhere.”

The Architect on Claiborne High School was Don Shell, President of Community Tectonics Architects, a 60 year old firm which has designed over 600 schools. I asked Mr. Shell his opinion about the design and construction materials used in CHS versus HVA and other new schools in Knox County. His response was, “I don’t see what is missing or inferior, CHS has every amenity one could imagine. The quantity and size of the individual spaces are a function of the student population and the criteria we used meets the standards of a demanding educational program.”

I asked Shell about the site costs at Claiborne compared to what he normally sees, he stated, “Both those schools had excessive site costs, as you know, due to extensive rock and sinkholes. They would have been 3 or 4 million dollars cheaper each had we been given a normal site.”

I asked Shell what he would speculate the high schools in Claiborne County would cost today using the same CM Agency delivery system, as used in 2004. He replied, “Normally we would project them to be in the $115 to $125/SF range due to inflation but in today’s climate they may still be in the $100 to $110/SF range. I would be hard pressed to make promises either way without studying the site more closely.”

Hardin Valley Academy has been reported to have cost between $175 and $200/SF depending on who you ask.

Let’s review:

• The Claiborne County Director of Schools says CHS was a great value,

• The Architect says CHS meets demanding construction and program standards.

• A local independent contractor thinks CHS exceeds the schools he has seen in Knox County

• The Tennessee School Board Association awarded CHS a School of the Year award AND…

• It cost over 40% less to build than Hardin Valley Academy.

Yet no one is interested in trying, (even once to see if it works in Knox County as it has everywhere else) to build a school in Knox County with the same methodology as was implemented in Claiborne County. Why?

Fear of change? Stubbornness? Turf protecting? Fear it might actually work? I don’t get it.

My conclusion is I don’t think the “apples and oranges” argument holds water, at least not in the direction it was meant too in its delivery by the Knox County administrators. I think this comparison may in fact be “oranges and apples”. You decide.