California Schools Take Six Years to Build

Published March 1, 2004

A new study from the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) reports it takes six years or longer to build a school in California. Some school construction officials say six years to build a school is a “fast track,” and that even longer times are more typical. For example, a 712-seat elementary school next to the California Science Center will be finished this year, 14 years after it was conceived in 1990.

Such extended construction periods seem extraordinarily long in a world of overnight shipping, just-in-time delivery, and the need to respond quickly to consumer, business, and economic change in today’s competitive environment. But they are long even by the standards of the computer-free world of the 1930s, when the Empire State Building took just 14 months to build and the Hoover Dam took only five years.

Extended school construction periods are hardly a new problem for California. Fifteen years ago, State Senator Leroy Greene asked: “Why, under the best of circumstances, is it taking between six and eight years to build a new high school?”

The answer, according to the PRI study, “No Place to Learn: California’s School Facilities Crisis,” is a complex approval process that involves five major state agencies plus seven other state agencies with 40 programs that may become involved in school construction. To ensure accountability for expenditure of tax dollars, projects “must comply with many different state and federal laws and regulations,” according to the Office of Public School Construction (OPSC).

Although local school districts are supposed to be able to “carry out their own construction projects,” in fact everything is a joint venture with the state, working with a wide range of agencies such as OPSC, the School Facilities Planning Division of the California Department of Education, the Department of Toxic Substances Control within the California Environmental Protection Agency, the California Energy Commission, the Department of Conservation, the Office of Advanced System Planning, and the State Water Resources Control Board.

“This bureaucratic maze creates lengthy delays and boosts costs,” notes the study’s author, K. Lloyd Billingsley, who points out that the costs of public-sector construction are generally from one-third to one-half more expensive than private-sector costs.

According to the Los Angeles Unified School District, there are 22 “functional steps” for each phase of a school construction project, each including multiple operations, forms, approvals, and analyses.

Despite this multi-layered oversight, the accountability system for school construction nevertheless failed taxpayers spectacularly with the spending of $175 million to create the Belmont Learning Center, which sits unusable on a Los Angeles site that emits poisonous gases. Another $111 million will be spent to make the school usable, bringing the total cost to $286 million–more than $100,000 per seat.

Even though school officials permitted Belmont to be built on a toxic site and possible criminal violations were referred to law enforcement agencies, no prosecutions ensued. Four employees left or retired and the district “punished” five others by making them take a year off–with pay.

“As far as can be discerned, nobody was fired, which itself would have involved a lengthy, expensive court-like process,” reports Billingsley. “Firing incompetent officials or teachers is a practical impossibility in the current system, one reason why incompetent officials remain on their jobs.”

Reforms recommended in “No Place to Learn” include:

  • building schools according to the Uniform Building Code rather than having a separate code for schools;
  • providing grants to school districts to allow them to plan, finance, and build their own schools;
  • eliminating prevailing-wage laws, which were originally created to bar blacks from public works projects;
  • encouraging residential site developers to build schools.

The report also recommends implementing several school choice options, such as:

  • providing parents with vouchers to allow them to choose among government-run and privately run schools for their children;
  • allowing for the easier creation and renewal of charter schools;
  • encouraging homeschooling in order to free up classroom space.

“It is not acceptable that the leading high-tech state finds it difficult to build schools,” said Billingsley. “Reform is necessary to provide the students of California with the facilities they need, while respecting taxpayers and maintaining accountability.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The Pacific Research Institute’s January 2004 study by K. Lloyd Billingsley, “No Place to Learn: California’s School Facilities Crisis,” is available online at