The Hidden Costs of School Construction
The Hidden Costs of School Construction — Building Schools Isn't Just About the Building
Posted on 03/31/2021
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“Why does it cost so much to build a school?” 

That’s a question we hear a lot. And as builders close in on a record year constructing new homes, we understand that taxpayers may be looking at the cost of bond projects with a critical eye. It’s easy to consider the cost of building a new home — the average new home price in Northwest ISD was $352,147 in 2020 — and wonder why a new school could cost $42 million. 

That comparison just doesn’t add up, according to Tim McClure, assistant superintendent for facilities.

“There are so many layers involved in planning and constructing schools,” he said. “These buildings will serve our community for decades to come. That’s not something we take lightly.”

As public buildings, schools are subject to more stringent requirements and laws than home construction projects. For example, schools in our area are now required by law to include a dedicated storm shelter that can operate independently from the rest of the building for at least two hours with water, electricity and working bathrooms. 

In addition, schools have to perform at a standard that meets the energy code requirements, which means better insulated schools with more efficient operating systems.

Schools also must withstand wear and tear from hundreds of students passing through the halls and working in the classrooms for about eight hours a day for almost 200 days each year. 


Higher quality materials (that may cost a little more) can be used to decrease repair costs and save money for the district’s budget. For example, painted handrails require annual upkeep and repainting, versus brushed aluminum or steel that does not require annual maintenance. 


Another example would be installing a flooring system that is just as durable, but doesn’t require stripping and re-waxing every summer.


The May 2021 bond proposal includes several projects to address infrastructure that has reached its end-of-life phase. These “lifecycle replacements” provide an opportunity for Northwest ISD to purchase new models that require less upkeep and save money in the long run.  


When building or replacing a school, there also hidden costs that add up to a much larger price tag: 


  • Site investigation costs

  • Land purchase

  • Legal fees

  • Future inflationary costs

  • Design fees

  • Engineering fees

  • Surveys

  • Construction cost (estimate of projected contractible bids)

  • Building permits

  • Materials testing

  • Kitchen equipment

  • Storage shelving

  • Network servers and equipment

  • Telephones

  • Security components

  • Cameras

  • Computers

  • Other technology equipment

  • Building furniture

  • Classroom furniture

  • Cafeteria tables

  • Closing cost


In addition, the district must build in a contingency budget to cover unforeseen or unexpected costs such as material spikes, labor shortages or natural disasters. 


Lance Thompson Elementary School, which opened in 2019 and was built using the district’s prototype elementary building, cost $258 per square foot. In Dallas-Fort Worth, the average cost per square foot for a new elementary school was $279 in 2019, while the state average was $259 per square foot.


Adams Middle School, which opened in 2018 and was built using the district’s prototype middle school design, cost $233 per square foot. In 2019, the average cost per square foot for new DFW middle schools was $300 per square foot, and the state average was $276 per square foot.


If approved by voters, the May 2021 bond proposal would fund six new school buildings — elementary schools #22 and #23, middle school #7, and replacement schools for Hatfield Elementary (built in 1998), Seven Hills Elementary (built in 1988) and Pike Middle School (opened in 1992 as Northwest High School). 


For more information on projects included in the bond proposal, visit