Wasatch School District Responds to Concerned Citizens

(The following appeared in the Wednesday, Oct. 2 edition of The Wasatch Wave):
In the past two weeks, The Wasatch Wave has published letters from citizens concerned about the upcoming bond election. The Wasatch County School Board appreciates and seeks citizen input regarding the upcoming bond. However, in both of these letters, the authors base their positions on misinformation and the board feels a responsibility to provide factual information.
In matters as critical as the education of the children in the county, falsehoods and half-truths cannot be allowed to stand and derail efforts to strengthen the experiences available to the students.
The cost of the current Wasatch High School, which opened in 2009, has often been misrepresented as $80 million, which would be a $21 million dollar over-run. If that were true, it would indeed, be alarming. However, the actual final cost of the high school was $69,117,961.00. This number is the correct, audited and certified cost of Wasatch High School. In spite of numerous attempts by district officials to correct the error, some still choose to use the incorrect figure.
The final cost of the building was $10 million dollars over budget. That is also a fact. What is not told to you is why that over-run happened.
However, an audit authorized by the Utah Legislature of school construction projects in 2008 explains why that over-run happened.
As explained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction costs rose rapidly during the period from January 2006 to July 2008 from changes in both the world and Utah construction markets. Globally, crude oil prices soared. Oil is used to manufacture many of the components used in construction. Copper prices skyrocketed as well, due to a work stoppage at copper mines in South America. In addition, China started construction on the infrastructure for the Olympics and started purchasing a huge portion of the cement powder available world-wide, driving cement costs up. Locally, costs for labor increased significantly because the LDS Church started construction of the City Creek Center. The state of Utah also started several large highway construction projects. Laborers chose to work in Salt Lake rather than drive over Parley’s to Heber. That put a premium on labor costs, driving those ever higher. In addition, one of the winters during the construction period was one of the most severe in several years, slowing down construction as well.
None of those events was foreseeable, but their effects were felt upon construction projects around the state. The 2008 legislative audit also referenced a large Utah school district which built the same elementary school five times during the period 2006-2008. Costs to build the same elementary school increased a whopping 69%. Statewide, elementary school cost rose 44% and middle school costs increased by 21% during this same period. The audit also projected that high schools construction costs would increase 86% during this same period.
The graph from the Bureau of Labor illustrates how rapid cost escalation impacted Wasatch County School District. WCSD passed the school bond for $59,500,000 in November of 2006 (#1 on the Bureau of Labor graph). The bid process for the project began in February of 2007 (#2 on the Bureau of Labor graph). In the two months immediately after the bond election and preceding the bid opening, construction prices jumped significantly. Instead of the $59.5 million price tag anticipated before this sudden increase in costs, the low bid for the project came in at over $70,000,000.
The Wasatch County School Board and district took steps to reduce the building costs by reducing space in the school, removing some classrooms, and changing some of the materials used in the construction. All of these things were done to mitigate the unexpected increase in the construction budget. The result of these efforts reduced construction costs by over $5 million. The final cost of the project was $64,677,182. The cost of the land added another $4,440,779. That brings the total cost of the project to $69,117,961.00.
Where did the district then come up with the $10 million to pay for the over-run? $6,669,963 of that amount was spread over three taxable years, using the capital budget already in place for the school district. Other projects were delayed or cancelled to free up this money. What may surprise many is that almost one-third of the money needed came from an interest-bearing account where the proceeds from the bond itself were placed when construction started. The interest earned on the money borrowed for the bond paid $2,773,749 of the cost over-run.
Wasatch County School District is often criticized for choosing to create a new design instead of using an existing design when building the current Wasatch High School. The following comment comes from the 2008 legislative audit, “While school districts recognize that savings can occur using a repeat design, school districts also report that using new school building designs is important.” They go on to say, “…it is through new designs that changes can be made to fix problems in old designs…It is also through new designs that educational programs can become more effective and efficient.” That is exactly what happened with the design of Wasatch High School. The design of the school, along with the quality of the building itself, provided students a much better educational experience. Evidence of that can be found by noting that the Wasatch High School design has been rebuilt several times in Utah, both by Alpine School District and Canyons School District. Districts would not be choosing to use this design if it were not effective.
In the coming weeks, look for more articles in this series that will continue to address citizen concerns. In the meantime, the bond issue in front of the public is too important to be decided through hearsay and rumor. Please take the time to attend public meetings and read the information provided about the bond. On the Wasatch County School District web site is a tab labeled “School Bond 2019.” One click on that will take you to a Frequently Asked Questions page that will provide answers to many of your questions. If your question is not there, please call 654-0820 and tell them you would like more information about the bond. They will make sure that your questions are answered.