New Orleans’ school construction costs are up, there may be too many schools and not enough children, and tens of millions of dollars in anticipated construction revenue and projected savings have yet to roll in, according to a Legislative Auditor’s Office report released Monday.
The report gives an update on the city’s nearly $2 billion schools master plan, a multiple-year construction plan jointly managed by the state-run Recovery School District and the local Orleans Parish School Board.
The plan’s goal is to place every child in a new or renovated school facility within four years, through a combination of Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, tax credits and other revenues.
The plan was last revised in 2011, when it set a goal of seating about 55,000 students in 35 new, 18 renovated and 28 “refurbished” schools, meaning those with less extensive renovations.
Most of the findings outlined Monday came as no surprise to local school watchers, as RSD and OPSB officials themselves highlighted many of the master plan’s shortcomings nearly two years ago. They noted then that construction costs had increased from an average $210 per square foot in the plan’s first phase to $250 per square foot in its second phase.
They also said more young students are entering the system than expected, which means more elementary school seats are needed.
Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s report also noted the increased costs and pointed out the need for more elementary schools and fewer high schools. It said that while a 2012 enrollment projection estimated an 8,467-student increase between 2010 and 2014, the schools actually saw an increase of only 5,149 students in that period. As a result, the master plan envisions providing more seats than needed, the report said.
If the trend continues, “RSD and OPSB will have excess capacity when the master plan projects are complete,” the report said.
Further, as of May 31, the city’s schools had realized only about a fifth, or $26.2 million, of a projected $139 million in potential savings and a little more than half, or $31.9 million, of projected $58.9 million in new revenue envisioned in the master plan, the audit report said.
Higher initial construction costs were the result of market conditions, OPSB and RSD officials said in response to the report. More recently, costs have stabilized, they said. They said tax credits, which make up most of the “new revenue” cited, usually are not fully obtained until projects are completed.
Moreover, the enrollment projections the auditor cited are invalid because they include students who receive state vouchers to attend private schools, RSD Chief Facilities Officer Ronald Bordelon and OPSB Chief Financial Officer Stan Smith said. Other calculations do not include those students, and without them, there is less than a 5 percent difference between projections and actual enrollment, the officials said.
However, Purpera said the projections were valid because officials have used them in the past to determine school capacities.
School officials also chided the auditor for including “swing space,” or temporary school buildings, in his assessment. He responded that it was appropriate to include these facilities in calculations while they are in use.
Purpera was not entirely critical of the school districts. Schools are being built faster, he noted, because of alternative construction and design methods, such as “design-build” schools, where construction begins before the entire design of the school is finished.
After environmental concerns sparked construction delays at Booker T. Washington High School and the RSD decided to build a new high school at the Walter L. Cohen High site, the agency extended its master plan schedule until mid-2019. The OPSB is on track to complete its work in December 2018, the report said.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.