Maine Districts Paying A High Price For New Schools As Construction Surges

Aug 21, 2018

With aging buildings and changes in population, school districts around Maine are planning and building more modern campuses. But some of the projects have encountered an unexpected obstacle: a sharp increase in cost, as competition and a shortage of labor have led some project costs to increase by 30 percent or more.

Yarmouth Superintendent Andrew Dolloff weaves through a maze of chairs, desks and concrete hallways into the cramped band room at Yarmouth Elementary School. Music stands and instruments fill up the space, with little room to actually teach.

Yarmouth Elementary School Principal Ryan Gleason shows off the cramped band room inside of his aging school. A new project would renovate and expand the school to house more students.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

The school has 80 students in band. Yet Dolloff and Principal Ryan Gleason say less than half can fit in here at a time.

“This room is 400 square feet,” Dolloff says. “It’s the size of a decent living room, probably. And you’ll have two dozen students in here — a dozen and a half to two dozen students — in here with their instruments.”

“We have a social worker who next year will actually need to share this space,” Gleason says.

“It is interesting,” Dolloff says. “How many schools do you go into where you’ve got a band room slash social workers office?”

He says Yarmouth Elementary is close to bursting at the seams. Student enrollment in the district was about 1,400 in 2008. According to projections, it could reach nearly 2,000 within the next decade.

“Although our facilities are in good shape, they’re not large enough,” Dolloff says. “We’re already at capacity in three of our facilities. And about to be at capacity in a fourth.”

Over the past year, a district committee formed a plan to deal with rising enrollment. For about $35 million, the district would expand three of its schools, including Yarmouth Elementary. But that was before estimates on the project came in this spring.

Instruments and music stands fill up a cramped music room at Yarmouth Elementary School. A new project would expand the school to ease increased enrollment in the district.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

“The estimates actually came in over $60 million,” Dolloff says. “Because we did the estimates over the past month and a half or so. And construction costs have just increased significantly.”

Those increased costs — sometimes as much as 30 percent more than expected — are affecting the way cities and towns approach construction of new schools.

“Right now, I can tell you that it is a concern,” says Matt Marks, the CEO of Associated General Contractors of Maine.

Marks says rising costs are the result of a “perfect storm” of issues affecting the construction industry: new tariffs on steel and aluminum, for one. And there’s the effect on labor from competing projects totaling hundreds of millions of dollars from organizations like Colby College and Maine Medical Center.

Marks says with so many options and few skilled laborers available, some contractors don’t need to bid for large school projects.

“When you look at some of those schools, where we had two bidders or even one bidder,” he says, “certainly a lot of that is driven by a lack of skilled workers. But also the competitive nature of what’s happening in the private market.”

The problem has been more drastic outside of the Portland area. In Camden, the school district has worked for years to build a middle school for an expected $22 million. Yet when Superintendent Maria Libby opened the bids in May, the lowest was nearly $5 million over budget.

“I was definitely disappointed in opening those envelopes,” she says. “Because I knew that was problematic.”

The district responded quickly to make aggressive cuts to the project. Timber beams, balconies, and playground equipment were removed. Athletic fields won’t be renovated. Residents ultimately approved the new plan in June, but not before encountering resistance from some residents and city councilors who didn’t like the uncertainty for taxpayers.

Similar problems occurred in a largely state-funded elementary school project planned in Caribou. The project received only one construction bid — $12 million over budget. State officials say depending on the market, they may look into other construction delivery methods for future projects.

Marks doesn’t see construction easing up anytime soon.

“If people think the private market gets softer, or people hold back on development, you could see more competitiveness in schools, too,” he says. “But for the foreseeable future, there’s a tremendous amount of work coming out of the door for next year and the year after, it looks like.”

As for the renovation in Yarmouth, the district scaled back its project from $60 million to $52 million — still far higher than projected. Dolloff says the town will offer residents two questions on a ballot referendum in November: to approve one $40 million renovation as well as another, $12 million project, that’s not quite as urgent.

He acknowledges that it’s a lot to ask of taxpayers.

“That’s a real concern for us,” Dolloff says. “We want to make sure we’re sensitive to that.”

And it’s why the town is leaving it up to voters to decide in November.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Originally published Aug. 20, 2018 at 3:32 p.m. ET.