Illinois bill could bump up costs to build new schools

Posted: Jun. 7, 2014 10:32 pm Updated: Jun. 29, 2014 12:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

A proposal to explore building several new schools in Quincy took a potentially expensive turn recently when the Illinois General Assembly approved a bill requiring all new schools to have storm shelters able to withstand a Category 4 tornado.

The bill -- HB 2513, which passed the House 103-0 and the Senate 43-14 -- is awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn's signature.

If signed into law, the bill would require schools to make sure any newly constructed school has a designated shelter area specifically designed to protect people in the event of a tornado.

According to the Illinois News Network, some Republican senators who opposed the bill said they were not against schools having adequate shelters, but they were against unfunded mandates. Others said the mandate will cause school construction costs to soar.

"The costs don't sound big when you say 20 or 30 cents per foot, but the reality is these requirements could end up costing up to a million dollars," said state Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon.

Joel Murphy, business manager for the Quincy School District, said he agrees the new law could result in higher costs for any new schools the Quincy School Board might decide to build in the future.

"It's not going to change what we're doing," Murphy said. "It's going to change the cost of what we're doing."

The School Board in February authorized spending up to $249,250 for the first phase of a master plan laying out a series of proposed improvements to the district's facilities.

Three architectural and engineering firms have been working jointly to complete the first phase by the end of June. The board will then decide whether it wants to authorize spending $123,750 for more detailed architectural and engineering work, putting the total cost of the master plan at $373,000.

A special committee is working with the architectural and engineering firms to investigate options and present a recommendation on whether the district should build some new buildings or renovate some existing buildings. The committee also will recommend whether the district should ask voters to consider a tax issue to help finance construction.

Murphy said the committee has already discussed the ramifications of the new law. He said the law, in essence, would increase new construction costs by about 25 percent for just the portion of any new school building designated as a storm shelter. The shelter would have to be strong enough to withstand a tornado with wind speeds of up to 200 mph.

For example, Murphy said, if a school decides to have a fortified gymnasium serve as a storm shelter, "whatever your dollar amount square-footage cost to build that gym is going to increase by 25 percent."

Cost estimates for any possible new Quincy schools have not been revealed.

Murphy said in Quincy's case, the School Board would hope to get voter approval to pass a bond issue to finance any facility improvements while keeping the district's tax rate at about the same level. This would be possible because some existing bond obligations are slated to be paid off in a couple of years and would simply be replaced by new bonds.

But to keep tax rates stable, the district would have to stay within certain spending parameters. So if shelter-related costs go up because of the new law, that means "we're going to have to reduce someplace else," Murphy said.

He said all existing schools in Quincy have emergency plans that would go into effect in the event of a tornado warning.

"We have identified safe areas to get kids into," he said. "We're doing the best that we can. Some of our facilities, particularly the older ones, would probably withstand things better than the newer ones."

One of the district's newest schools is Quincy High School, where "half the hallways are glass," Murphy said. He said in the event of a tornado, "you want to limit your exposure to glass and those types of things."

Consequently, he said, if any new school construction is contemplated in the future in Quincy, safety from storms and other potential threats will be a major consideration.

"You have to design your facilities so that you're going to minimize your exposure to risk," he said. "There are things that we can build into the design of a building to make them much safer for severe weather."