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Rethink School Improvement

Ohio County Board of Education members are seeing the tip of an iceberg that is only going to grow larger and more dangerous to their plan for $76 million in school repairs and improvements. It may be time to take another look at the overall proposal.

Last year, voters approved sale of $42.2 million in bonds to be paid off with property tax revenue. That money is to be matched with state funds and a few other dollars for the $76 million strategy.

But $76 million now and during the next several years probably will not buy what school officials envisioned in 2018.

Just last week, board members were given truly depressing news: Part of the improvement project is to install a new heating, ventilating and air conditioning system at Triadelphia Middle School. The price tag had been estimated initially at $1.3 million — but board members were told that doing what they want will cost $2.7 million. The whole idea will have to be rethought.

Coincidentally, the state School Building Authority, from which about one-third of the money for the $76 million plan is expected to come, had to take unpleasant action a few days ago. When county school systems request funding from the SBA, that agency uses a per-square-foot calculation to determine whether costs are realistic. The number used for that in the past has been $250 per square foot of new construction.

SBA members have had to increase the figure to $300 per square foot.

It is costing more — much more — to improve schools and build new ones than was the case just a few years ago.

Don’t blame Ohio County board members. When they devised the school improvement strategy, they worked with numbers that seemed accurate at the time. It is not their fault that costs are going up steeply. Look for the experience with Triadelphia Middle School to be repeated — though hopefully not to that extent.

Board members should ask architects, engineers, contractors, etc., for their best estimates of what construction costs are likely to be during the next several years. With that information, they should review the improvement plan and set clear priorities to ensure that absolutely critical work gets done. If some plans have to be altered, so be it. It would be better for all concerned to plan for that comprehensively than school by school.

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