Editor's Focus: Reversal of Fortune

With all things seemingly rising these days — gas prices, the cost of goods and materials, the global temperature, my age — there is one thing bucking the trend: education construction spending.

Total construction spending by education institutions pulled back last year to an amount not seen since the beginning of the decade, according to American School & University's 32nd annual Official Education Construction Report. Slightly more than $37.5 billion worth of new construction, additions and modernization projects were completed in 2005, an almost 10 percent drop from what was spent the year before.

It's not that there isn't a need to provide more schools and improved facilities. It's just that skyrocketing construction costs have forced many education institutions to cut back on building footprints or even postpone construction plans altogether.

Spending on construction by school districts was affected the most notably. The nation's K-12 institutions completed about $23 billion worth of projects in 2005, down from $29 billion the year before. Colleges and universities, however, actually increased spending on construction to $14.5 billion from $12.1 billion in 2004.

One way school districts in particular are trying to keep construction costs down is shown in the space per student in new facilities. The median amount of square feet per student in elementary schools completed in 2005, for example, is 97. This is a dramatic reduction from the 149 square feet per student provided the year before. In fact, not since the late 1980s has there been such a low median square-foot-per-student amount in elementary schools.

Is this a temporary reaction to escalating costs, or the beginning of a trend toward providing less student space because of budgetary concerns?

Most likely we are experiencing a short-term reaction to market conditions. As history has shown, school districts and their communities will do their best to provide facilities with enough space to serve the education needs of students effectively.

SCORECARD

$37.5

Amount, in billions, spent on new construction, additions and modernizations in 2005 by the nation's school districts and colleges.

$22.9

Amount, in billions, spent on construction in 2005 by the nation's K-12 institutions, a drop from the $29 billion spent the year before.

$14.5

Amount, in billions, spent on construction in 2005 by the nation's colleges and universities, an increase over the $12.1 billion spent the year before.

97

Amount of square feet per student in elementary schools completed in 2005, the lowest amount since the late 1980s.

149

Amount of square feet per student in elementary schools completed in 2004.

$125

Amount, in billions, projected to be spent on construction through 2008 by the nation's education institutions.

Source: 32nd annual Official Education Construction Report (see p. 24)

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