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Wednesday, July 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Education

School construction costs soar

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Three school-construction projects in the Snohomish School District likely will cost about $21 million more than budgeted because of sharply escalating prices for construction materials.

The rising prices as well as few bidders in a red-hot regional construction market also could affect high schools planned for Granite Falls, Lynnwood and Marysville.

Higher-than-expected construction costs for an elementary school planned to open in fall 2007 in the Snohomish district have driven up the project's price tag from $17 million to an estimated $23 million, said Karen Riddle, the district finance manager.

The projected cost of a new Snohomish-district high school has risen from $68 million to $76 million. The estimated cost of a major renovation to Snohomish High School has climbed from $64 million to $71 million.

The Snohomish School Board has "looked at all the gory details for several months," Riddle said. "We've been hit with huge construction-cost inflation."

The board is to meet at 7 p.m. Aug. 2 to adopt new budgets for the three projects, approved by district voters as part of a bond measure in 2004.

Several planned features of the new high school will be made optional when the project goes to bid in September, including a performing-arts center, junior-varsity baseball and softball fields, and artificial turf on the field for football and soccer.

The district may also have to scale back the renovation of Snohomish High School because of the higher costs.

Riddle said the district is aggressively pursuing additional state matching funds and continues to receive mitigation fees from county developers to help offset the increased project costs.

Causes of inflation

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Until three years ago, school-construction costs in Washington had risen a steady 3 to 4 percent annually, according to state figures. But a booming regional economy, the upcoming 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, B.C., and the globalization of the construction industry, with high demand for raw materials from China, have combined to fuel inflation.

In the past three years, costs have risen considerably.

In 2003, the state average for new construction was $161 per square foot. The new Snohomish-district elementary will cost $239 per square foot. Two contracts awarded this month for new elementary schools in the Highline School District, south of Seattle, will cost $271 and $273 per square foot, said Carter Bagg, who administers matching funds for school construction for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The price of structural steel, concrete and copper used in wiring have all climbed sharply the past few years, Bagg said. He said districts also have been hurt by the lack of competition in bidding for public projects.

Only two contractors bid on the new Snohomish-district elementary. A new elementary under construction in the Everett School District had only one bidder when the contract was awarded in May, Bagg said.

"There are so many jobs under way or planned that contractors can be choosy," he said.

Edmonds School District voters in February approved a new $86 million Lynnwood High School as part of a $140 million bond package. So far, the design of the new school hasn't been scaled back, said Ed Peters, the capital-projects director for Edmonds schools.

"Like everybody else, we're very concerned. We're watching the market and updating our cost estimates," Peters said. "We're doing everything we can to avoid being surprised on bid day."

New strategies tried

The Granite Falls School District will open bids on a new, 800-student high school Aug. 8. Kathy Grant, a district spokeswoman, said the district has actively marketed the project through ads in journals aimed at the construction trade.

The district also is offering incentives to attract more construction firms to the project, including a guarantee of no change orders, a waiver of some costs and a financial bonus for on-time completion.

"We're trying to be really creative. To my knowledge, it's never been done before," Grant said.

Whether the strategies attract more bidders and keep costs down is uncertain.

"We won't know for sure until August 8," Grant said.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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