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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009 11 years ago

My View

by: Rod Thomson

There is certainly a “wow” factor to the new Riverview High School.

Teachers, administrators, custodians and others all enter the school in a semi-awed silence more apropos to a cathedral than a high school. Students — when they returned to school — no doubt reacted the same way.

From the mix of the classic to the modern, from the Paul Rudolph influence to the glass to the football-field-size courtyard, the school is gorgeous. BMK Architects and Perkins + Will Architects captured what school leaders wanted and more, and the construction and workmanship by W.G. Mills brought it to life.

Principal Linda Nook is taking full advantage of the opportunity to instill not just pride, but also responsibility among the students. She created an acronym based on the school mascot. RAMS stands for responsible, attentive, motivated and safe, and she is taking aim directly at seniors to set the example.

All great. But gorgeous doesn’t come cheap. This school cost a fortune. By all Sarasota and regional standards, Riverview High School is a gold-plated school in a district that never, ever has enough money — or so its leaders claim.

The school cost $120 million — and that was under budget because the district luckily benefited from building during the construction downturn. Still, the price tag dwarfs the $55 million cost to build North Port High School, which opened in 2001. The Venice High School rebuilding is budgeted for $91 million in the next five years.

In fact, Riverview High School might be the most expensive high school ever built in Florida. In 1997, the most expensive high school was said to be Miami Northwestern at $75 million. The Florida Department of Education does not keep those figures, but a spokesman was literally “wowed” at the cost.

School officials caution against making the price comparisons, at least without caveats, because they say these are apples, oranges and star fruit comparisons.

Fair enough. Here are some of the caveats. Riverview is large, with a student capacity of 2,831 students.

But North Port’s student capacity is 2,912, and Sarasota High School’s is 2,989. I can’t see how that accounts for much price difference. Another caveat is that Riverview was built under an enhanced building code. True, and that is bound to add some costs, but certainly not more than doubling the costs. So neither of these explains it.

Then there is the enormous amount of technology in the building, the retention of the original architectural flavor in the design, the heavy use of glass in the building, the one million brick pavers in the courtyard and the dozens and dozens of other amenities that drove up the cost.

As one school official knowledgeable of the project told me: “There were a lot of upgrades we won’t do in other schools.”

And when the bids came in, that school official said, “We all were shocked at the price tag.” Yet the School Board members OK’d it anyway. Only the best for our kids!

Saying this may be the most expensive high school in Florida is one thing. But let’s break it down by student. Say it lasts for 50 years. Frankly, in today’s environment, that seems unlikely. But let’s go with 50.

Riverview will get about 2,500 students per year. So, we will take our 50 years and multiply it by 2,500 students to get 125,000 student years (let’s call them) during that time. However, high schools are four years, so the number of unique students during those 50 years is about 31,250. Some will move out, some will move in, but it is in the ball park.

That comes to $3,840 per student attending Riverview High school over the next half century. It is critical to remember that is just for the building and does not include other, ongoing capital costs such as computers, books, desks, chairs, school buses and so forth.

And that is all before the per-student cost that the school district publicly claims to spend each year. That is because the district will not include capital costs when it releases per-student spending, only operating costs. Those operating costs — alone — are fed to and duly reported in the local media and so the enormous cost of this magnificent school will never be included in the district’s professed spending per student. It never shows up. We all just pay for it.

Given the colossal cost of educating a child in the public schools, taxpayers who footed the bill for this top-end project might reasonably ask: Was no expense spared?

The glistening answer is on Proctor Road.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at [email protected].


Here are some of the amenities in the new Riverview High School:
• One million paver bricks were used for the interior courtyard alone, which includes the Ram logo in paver.
• The gymnasium is big enough for two, full-size basketball courts and seats 2,200 people.
• The women’s restroom in the new gym has 26 stalls; the men’s has 15.
• The 1,100-seat auditorium will be the envy of theater companies and orchestras.
• The cafeteria has three full-service serving stations.
• Large patios on multiple levels overlook Phillippi Creek.

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