Bill aims to curb rising cost of Utah schools

Posted at 9:34 PM, Feb 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-05 23:57:51-05

SALT LAKE CITY — On Friday, state senators voted in favor of wrangling in what they say are unnecessarily high costs to build schools in Utah.

Senate Bill 131 aims to give taxpayers a better idea of how much it will cost to build a school, and perhaps, options for doing it cheaper. However, educators across the state say it’s a bad policy.

Two schools under construction now are slated to top over $120 million — each.

“People see that price sticker and their eyes pop open. 'How in the world is it this expensive?'” said Rusty Cannon, the vice president of Utah Taxpayer Association.

The cost to rebuild Skyline High in Salt Lake is estimated at $124 million. Cyprus High's rebuild in Magna is estimated to cost $147 million.

“We are building buildings to last 70 to 80 years and to meet the needs of future students down the road,” said Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley.

In response to the significant rise in the price to build schools, Sen. Wayne Harper of Taylorsville introduced a bill Friday to update construction guidelines.

"Are we paying too much for schools? Are we building Taj Mahals?” Harper said.

The bill provisions would require the state board to develop a school “prototype” and publish a range of construction prices from prior years.

“We need to have something that brings better light, more transparency and more accountability to this process so the next time the school district says we need to build a school and it’s this much money and we want to issue a bond, then they have better information,” Harper said.

Taxpayer watchdogs support the measure.

“Anytime a proposal is made to increase property taxes to build a school, it makes a big difference. Some of these schools get quite expensive. It does have a meaningful effect on taxpayers,” said Cannon.

Yet, Horsley tells FOX 13 that construction costs should be blamed and not lavish design. Since 2017, construction costs rose about 10 percent year-over-year.

“Our cost for square footage is no different than it was 20 years ago when you take into consideration inflation,” said Horsley.

By comparison, when the impressive Corner Canyon School in Draper was built in 2013, the total cost was just over $74 million. That includes a classroom wing addition in 2019.

Even so, lawmakers passed the bill out of committee with a favorable recommendation.

Despite some tweaks to the bill to make it easier on districts, it is still opposed by the Utah School Boards Association and other education groups.