Open Education Open Education

Time to Eliminate Taj Mahal School Building Projects

As education expenses continue to grow, strapped taxpayers have begun pushing back on state and local governments. In the tiny State of Maine, many school districts are finding that passing a school budget for the upcoming school year a sincere challenge.

Even the tiny town of Monmouth, home to one of Maine’s finest public school systems, has seen such a rebellion, leaving school officials without a school budget for 2008-09. With another school year set to begin in less than a month’s time, Monmouth finds itself in an extremely challenging position.

Massachusetts Taking a Stance Regarding School Building Projects
One of the areas adding to the current budget issues for many school districts is the repayment of funds for recent building projects. As school buildings age and the respective operating systems become out-of-date, capital improvements have become a greater portion of local school budgets in recent times.

mass.govIn many states, such projects also create great financial stress on state tax dollars. In Massachusetts, State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, is making a strong push towards ending what might be called an open-ended building environment.

Cahill specifically indicated he wanted to see an end to “Taj Mahal” high schools, a reference to local communities being unable to draw a line between what is truly necessary and what is a luxury or design for aesthetic purposes. As one method of limiting the state funding costs, Cahill wants to create a set of building designs that communities would have to select from. The treasurer asserts that such a step could help cut building projects by as much as 30 percent.

bloomberg.comGiven the recent stories of the new Newton North High School project, a $197.5 million building that easily created the aforementioned “Taj Mahal” image, it is easy to see why Cahill is taking such a stance. The Newton project clearly represents the fundamental debate point, a school community with a “wish list” of what parents and educators might want versus those items that are truly necessary or that a community can actually afford.

Such steps have already been put in place in the South (Florida, for example). The practice not only creates new school buildings in a cost effective manner, the result is a building that has been previously tested for functionality.

Consequences for Communities
One issue that will create a problem for Cahill is site choices. Whereas Florida offers a flat, ledge-free building environment, northern lands often represent unique challenges requiring buildings that must conform to site demands.

Still, Cahill believes a number of plans could be drawn up for suitable sites. Then, if communities were to apply for state funds, they would need to select one of the pre-approved designs to receive financial backing.

Towns refusing to select from one of the designs could face two distinct consequences. One might be simply a refusal from the state to help with funding the project. The second option for those communities refusing to select a pre-accepted plan could be the demand that schools renovate their existing facility rather than build new.

Bloomberg.comNot too surprisingly, Massachusetts’ architects have come out strongly against such a plan. Phrases such as cookie-cutter and one-size fits all have been thrown around liberally. Many have insisted that there is no such thing as a prototypical site and such a practice would eliminate the individual character that defines a community.

Those same opponents also question whether there would be any real savings.

Time Has Come
With architectural fees running around 10 percent for each project, it is easy to see that the school design business is a lucrative one for firms. And when a school district initially planning a $100 million project instead pushes the cost out to nearly $200 million as Newton did, the final building represents $15-$20 million in architectural fees alone.

Limiting the total structure to ensure that a project does not double in costs because of local desires is a must in today’s tax climate. A tremendous concern for taxpayers as well as for government officials is the fact that one is not looking at only repayment of the initial construction costs with such a project. These buildings must be heated, cooled, cleaned and maintained for many years to come, making the actual costs of such “Taj Mahal” designs a challenge for taxpayers for many years to come.

Providing sound designs that do not shortchange the educational environment for students isn’t just a prudent step for state officials, it is an essential one to ensure continued taxpayer support for education.

1 comment

1 Howard Denson { 08.29.10 at 1:25 pm }

The Taj Mahal school projects may lend themselves to claims that they are buildings worthy of excellence. That misses the point.

First, truly great building projects stand out for their rarity. The world needs a St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, a Versailles outside of Paris, the Great Pyramids, and a Taj Mahal. Although these are monuments to excess and vanity, they are also tourist attractions that are as valuable in their unique way as Disney World. Any builders and architects who would see a nation filled with quarter- to half-billion-dollar schools would trivialize their uniqueness.

Second, many states are already plagued by a taxation system that permits palatial schools in some cities and counties, but looks askance when poor cities and counties have trouble maintaining their facilities and purchasing books and supplies.

Third, the Taj Mahal projects join other fads that fret about “what can we do to encourage our students to learn?” Instead of worrying about upgrading teachers and facilities, let’s focus more on requiring students to become engaged in their education. William Faulkner once said that “intelligence is the ability to survive in one’s environment.” Our students could be engaged in learning, whether in a one-room, log cabin school house or a concrete-block structure without air conditioning.

Leave a Comment