New DeKalb high school to cost nearly $90M, much more than schools miles away

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — DeKalb County taxpayers are about to undertake an extraordinarily expensive project.

The DeKalb school system is planning to build a new high school costing nearly $90 million. That's more than twice the cost of brand-new high schools just a few miles away.

The new Cross Keys High School will be built right across from the Target on North Druid Hills Road.

Local property owners pay the great majority of their taxes to their school systems.

To get some perspective on DeKalb's school construction costs, we looked at two Gwinnett County schools.

Gwinnett County's Paul Duke STEM High School opened last year. McClure Health Sciences High School opened this year.


Both schools are just about the same size and cost almost exactly the same: $127 a square foot.

So one might think Cross Keys in DeKalb would cost the same as the high schools in Gwinnett. Oh, no. Think again.

All three schools are the same size -- about 300,000 square feet.

The new Cross Keys will cost DeKalb taxpayers $256 a-square foot – 102% higher.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher walked the site of DeKalb's new high school with Michelle Fincher and Despina Lamas, whose interest in school overcrowding in north DeKalb has given them a quick lesson in the district's finances.

They know about the most recent state financial audit, which was highly critical of the DeKalb school district.

"I'm willing to pay taxes. I'm willing to spend money, but I'm not willing to watch it all get mismanaged," Lamas said.

"We don't understand how Gwinnett can build a school for $38 million, roughly, and we need to build a school for $85 million that's about the same size," Fincher said.

Fincher and Lamas see the Cross Keys price as more evidence of a larger management problem.

"I don't think most people in our community were quite aware, were aware of the financial mismanagement of the school district," Lamas said.

"I don't have a revenue issue in DeKalb. We have a financial management issue in DeKalb," Fincher said.

DeKalb sent Channel 2 Action News a statement explaining the cost differential:

We reached out to AECOM, our program manager, Cooper Carry, the architect for the Cross Keys HS project, and Evergreen Construction, the Construction Manager At Risk for the Cross Keys HS project and inquired as to why there would be differences in price per square feet. Evergreen is the same construction company that built the McClure Health Sciences High School.

The estimated amount for the construction contract is $86.8 million and divided by 338,000 SF would yield $257 per square foot. The full $102 million (full project cost), including technology, design, furniture, contingency, and all other costs, including demolition of the temporary John Lewis facility, would yield $302 per square foot. Without knowing what is in Gwinnett's cost, it would be difficult to compare these numbers. We would need to review the systems and items included in Gwinnett County School's costs and Cross Keys' costs to make a true apples to apples comparison.

Below are Evergreen's observations and comparisons between Cross Keys HS (DCSD) and McClure Health Sciences High School (GCPS):

  1. Timing – McClure HS was priced in 2016 while the proposed Cross Keys HS is projected to start in 2020. Based on 5% per year construction cost escalation and all other factors equal, Cross Keys HS should be 20% more than McClure Health Sciences High School.
  2. Direct Purchases – Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) purchases some items direct that most other schools districts choose to have the contractor purchase, including kitchen equipment, systems such as audiovisual, voice/data, lockers, and landscaping.
  3. Future expansion – The Cross Keys HS core areas (media center, cafeteria, kitchen) are designed to support additional classrooms that can be added at a future date. McClure HS' media center, cafeteria, kitchen were not designed for future expansion. This future expansion capability adds square footage and cost to the project. The core spaces (media center, cafeteria, kitchen) are more expensive (on a square foot basis) than classroom space.
  4. Site Costs – The McClure HS site was going to be the second phase of an office development so there was not as much site work required as part of that project.  Specifically, the McClure HS site costs were $5.5 million less than the current budget for Cross Keys site work.
  5. Design – Cross Keys HS includes more "21st Century Learning" design features as compared to a more traditional school. This includes interior glass partitions and daylight in every classroom.  Approximately 30% of the classrooms in McClure HS are "inboard" and do not have daylight.
  6. Omissions – Because McClure HS is a "themed" high school, it does not include any athletic facilities for competitive sports such as football, baseball, softball, volleyball, tennis, wrestling, etc. There are also other programmatic components of a typical high school missing in the McClure program.  The omission of these spaces causes the overall cost to be less.  Paul Duke HS similarly is a themed STEM school with similar omissions.
  7. Program – The current Cross Keys design includes CTAE program elements. These spaces are also inherently more expensive than typical classroom space. The health sciences program for McClure HS did not require more expensive space.
  8. Sales tax – The sales tax rate in DeKalb is 33% higher than that in Gwinnett – 8% vs. 6%.  It may not sound like much but material costs are a significant cost component of construction.

Based on the architect's experience of four middle schools for Gwinnett County Public Schools, they had the following observations (similar to Evergreen):

  1. Gwinnett County Schools projects came in rather low compared to our other in-town projects, but to be fair, GCPS's guide specifications dictated a different end product. Things are not apples to apples.
  2. In the past GCPS pulled out some subcontractor numbers from the base (different than how other districts do it), which yielded lower numbers. For example, GCPS would buy their kitchen equipment, lockers, and other items direct and that amount would not be recorded in their base cost. As well, often their sites start out pre-graded and pad ready, another big chunk of the cost that does not get reported in the end number.
  3. Cross Keys HS is being designed with more square footage to accommodate future growth without later having to expand core spaces such as Kitchen, Cafeteria, Media Center. Each square foot adds cost.
  4. The Cross Keys HS site is a tight and fairly complicated site as opposed to a typical GCPS site which in that past came graded and level.
  5. Historically, Gwinnett County, south metropolitan areas, and Cobb County enjoyed lower construction costs. The presumption is that these areas have more access to cheaper subcontractors from out of state that is willing to reach the outer suburbs, but not the congested inner core of the Atlanta area. With that said, in-town districts like DeKalb, Fulton, and APS, pay higher construction costs
  6. In-town sites tend to be tighter and less workable. As well there tend to be more constraints on and around in-town sites.
  7. In-Town schools tend to have different design requirements. For example, the schools that the architect designed for GCPS were required to be compact designs, meaning more classrooms packed in the middle without windows. This is cost-effective, but studies show natural light improves student performance. Cross Keys HS is designed for natural light in nearly all teaching spaces.