Innovative construction saves charter schools time, money

Critics say more costly construction is safer

National Heritage Academies
Design drawings from one of National Heritage Academies’ charter school buildings in Grand Rapids.

Charter schools were adopted in Michigan as a way to allow innovation to occur outside the regulatory bureaucracy of traditional public schools. While creativity was generally expected to come from inside the classroom, a Michigan firm is gaining attention for new ideas in the construction of charter school buildings.

Jason Pater, real estate projects manager for National Heritage Academies (NHA), a charter school company based in Grand Rapids, says his company is saving charter schools significant time and money by using alternative construction methods.

Pater says his company is constructing schools for $65 per square foot and $7500 per student. American School & University magazine’s 29th annual Official Education Construction Report reported that construction of traditional public schools in the Midwest in 2002 typically cost about $144 per square foot and $17,083 per student. The national average for high school construction, according to the report’s sample of 400 school districts, was $158 per square foot and $23,409 per student.

NHA’s cost of building a charter school compares even more favorably with two of Michigan’s flagship school construction projects, Cass Technical High School and The Detroit High School for the Fine, Performing & Communication Arts, which have been noted for being among the most expensive in the country. Cass Technical High School, which was scheduled to open in 2004 but has now been delayed until 2005, will cost $262 per square foot and about $47,000 per student. The Detroit High School for the Fine, Performing & Communication Arts will have a price tag of about $391 per square foot and $80,600 per student.

While traditional public schools in Michigan receive an average of $681 annually per student for capital funding, charter schools receive no government money for construction or maintenance. Pater says this disparity led NHA president J.C. Huizenga to seek ways to build charter schools at lower cost. In 1995, Huizenga approached builder Doug Bouma of the Bouma Corporation about cutting the cost and time needed to complete a charter school.

Bouma submitted a proposal with a cost per square foot of $65 ($100 per square foot when furnishings and land acquisition are included) — far lower than the average cost for traditional public school construction.

While traditional public schools typically allow a minimum of 18 months for a school construction project, charters often have only a few months between receiving their operating charter and the start of the school year. Pater says the average time to completion for NHA schools, from groundbreaking to opening, is about 16 weeks, or approximately one-fifth the time of traditional schools. This allows parents to quickly enjoy the benefits of the schools their parents have chosen.

Doug Bouma says his company uses a “modified post-frame construction,” eliminating the need for expensive masonry and steel. This type of construction, according to Bouma, can be completed much more quickly, and allows for easy and inexpensive expansion should additional classrooms be needed. Moreover, the method avoids the much-criticized traditional public school practice of adding trailers as classrooms.

Critics have charged that school buildings need the more costly masonry and steel to assure children’s safety. But Pater disagrees. “Charters have to meet the same codes and standards as are required of all schools. We just do it more economically,” he said.

Joe Agron, editor-in-chief of American School & University, stated that he was not familiar enough with the modified post-frame type of construction, but he confirmed that $65 per square foot is much lower than the national median for all types of new school building construction (elementary, middle and high) completed in 2003. He said, “just ‘building’ a school does not make it an environment appropriate for learning. The construction of a school building should evolve based on the academic program, teaching and learning styles, and goals of the community.”