News & Politics

Private School Bidding Wars

Local private schools are putting up million-dollar athletic centers, science labs, and student lounges that rival what top colleges offer.

t’s a bright May morning, and Geoff Jones, head of the Potomac School in Mc Lean, is giving a tour.

The upper school was recently renovated and expanded for science labs, a state-of-the-art library, an environmentally friendly roof garden, and more. The cost: $34 million. For the building’s inauguration, Potomac brought in a guest speaker: Bill Clinton.

When Jones reaches an area called the Crossroads—where the building’s two wings intersect—he seems almost at a loss for words. Modeled on the layout of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, it’s flooded with light from three-story windows and seems as expansive as an airport terminal. A huge stone fireplace softens the effect.

After a pause, Jones lets out a contented sigh. “It’s just a wonderful space,” he says.

Impressive as the building is, it doesn’t set Potomac School apart. More than two dozen independent schools in the Washington area have multimillion-dollar construction projects planned, under way, or recently completed. Many are adding science labs, performing-arts spaces, student lounges, and athletic centers that would make colleges jealous.

St. Albans is spending $44 million to renovate and expand its upper school. The new middle school at Sidwell Friends was the first K-12 building to earn a “platinum” certification from the US Green Building Council, which administers standards for environmentally friendly construction. Georgetown Prep is embarking on phase two of a campus overhaul that will likely exceed $60 million.

Prep’s president, the Reverend William L. George, is especially proud of his school’s $23-million athletic center. Completed in January, it features an 11-lane pool, an NCAA-regulation basketball court, a large weight room, and Montgomery County’s only 200-meter indoor track.

George says that recent graduates tell him the facility outshines what their colleges offer—even at athletic-powerhouse schools. “Duke’s is probably better,” George says, “but not much better. And then you realize ours is for 455 boys—not 10,000 students.”

With the athletic center completed, Georgetown Prep is designing a new building with wired classrooms, a library, science labs—plus a student lounge with a cafe, game room, and theater.

Such changes raise the stakes for other schools. “Everybody’s in the building mode—you have to be just to keep up,” says David Merrick, who was until recently director of development at the Landon School in Bethesda.

Landon, one of Georgetown Prep’s athletic rivals, is planning to renovate its sports center. “It won’t be the Taj Mahal that Prep has,” Merrick says, “but it will allow us to be competitive.”

What it takes to be competitive keeps getting more expensive, Merrick says. Until recently, synthetic-turf fields—which typically cost $1 million or more—were considered a luxury. “Now,” he says, “it’s a competitive disadvantage not to have one.”

The real-estate boom and a strong local economy have fueled the independent-school building boom. “There is so much concentrated wealth now compared to a decade ago,” says Mike Saxenian, Sidwell’s assistant head and chief financial officer. “Even with recent economic bumps, the fundraising environment is much better.”

Sidwell—like Potomac and Georgetown Prep—had been struggling with baby-boom-era facilities that had never been updated. Sidwell’s old middle school was built in 1951. “The need had become acute,” Saxenian says.

“Schools are taking 20-year-old facilities and bringing them up to what’s happening in 21st-century education,” says Kate Lindsey, chief financial officer of Georgetown Day School in Northwest DC, which last year completed a $25-million expansion of its high school.

Georgetown Day found that science classrooms required about 50 percent more space to accommodate high-tech lab equipment. And the school needed more labs; students used to take three or four yearlong science courses in high school, but now four to five is the norm.

“The upper-end science labs we have probably still aren’t in some of the colleges,” she says. “And we have a black-box theater that’s as sophisticated as any college theater.”

Parents, too, are helping to drive the facilities boom. Myra McGovern of the National Association of Independent Schools says families are looking for schools that are one-stop shops, with cutting-edge theaters, athletic centers, science labs, and dance studios all in one place.

“There’s a cultural shift among parents who have school-age children now,” she says. “They want to have every possible opportunity open to them.”

Thanks to increasingly high tuitions—many area schools now charge at least $20,000 a year—parents also have come to expect grade-A facilities. “It’s sort of a vicious cycle,” says Peter Sturtevant, director of the School Counseling Group in Northwest DC, which evaluates independent schools and advises parents. “Huge dollars are spent on tuition. As a result, schools have had to operate more like corporations in terms of pleasing their constituencies.”

Most schools pay for new facilities through capital campaigns and tax-exempt bonds. But some find creative alternatives. George town Prep funded its expansion by leasing part of its sprawling property to a developer who built 473 luxury apartments. The deal will yield $888 million over 99 years.

“Every institution that I’m working with right now is evaluating its assets based on off-balance-sheet or nonacademic revenue,” says DC architect Michael Winstanley, who designed Georgetown Prep’s athletic center.

Schools also are looking for creative ways to avoid town-gown conflicts. During construction, Georgetown Day held weekly public meetings, gave out passes for a nearby car wash, and paid to have windows and porches cleaned when dust coated nearby houses.

Perhaps most important, the school’s expansion included a new parking garage. “There’s no question that having everyone parking on site relieves some of the pressure with the neighborhood,” Lindsey says.

Another neighbor-friendly strategy: building below grade. Georgetown Day doubled the size of its high school, but half of the new space is hidden underground.

“When you go below grade, you don’t have to worry about zoning restrictions or preservation laws,” says architect David Cox, a principal with the DC firm Cox Graae & Spack. “City campuses that do not have much land are going to increasingly look at that.”

In 2002, the National Cathedral School in DC completed a $26-million sports complex—with a climbing wall, juice bar, and state-of-the-art facilities—that is 90 percent underground. Washington International School took a similar approach at its grades 6–12 campus. It’s on a former estate in Cleveland Park, and historic-preservation restrictions limited the size of its new building. So the school put about 60 percent of the space­—which includes a black-box theater, classrooms, and a library—below ground.

Green building is also popular. The Sidwell Friends middle school features recycled building materials, solar panels, and a constructed wetland for wastewater filtration—the first in the District. The project has gotten a lot of media coverage, and Sidwell has had a steady stream of visitors from other schools.

“Students love it,” Saxenian says. “A green building is not only much better to learn in because the air is clean and there’s a lot of daylight, but it also gives them hope.” Sidwell now is renovating and expanding its lower school and again will pursue a green certification.

Other schools have used green design but opted not to pursue certification. Potomac made energy efficiency a priority and included a roof garden. But the process for gaining certification would have cost at least $700,000, officials say.

“Our thinking is that the responsible thing is just to build the green building,” Jones says. Potomac plans to incorporate green elements in the renovation of its lower school, which begins in the spring.

But do gold-plated facilities benefit the children? “What message does it send to a 13-year-old that they’re playing in a $10-million gymnasium?” Sturtevant says. “I wonder some days: When is this going to end?”

The answer seems to be “no time soon.” Many schools have hired architects to develop master plans that call for major construction in years to come. School heads say it makes sense to build beyond today’s needs. Says Potomac’s Geoff Jones: “You’re building for the next 40 or 50 years, so you need to somehow look ahead.”


For even more information about private schools in the capitol area click here