The base with the most expensive prison on earth is getting one of the world’s priciest schools — a $65 million building with classroom space for, at most, 275 kindergarten through high school students.
Do the math: That’s nearly a quarter-million-dollars per school child. In Miami-Dade County a new school costs perhaps $30,000 per student.
Congress recently allocated the funds for the new W.T. Sampson School to put the children of American sailors stationed here under one roof. It will meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, have a proper public address system, computer and science labs, art and music rooms, a playground, cafeteria and gym — just like any new school anywhere in America.
But the investment also illustrates the Pentagon’s intent to keep this base open even if President Barack Obama manages to move out the last 132 war-on-terror captives, and close the prison run by 2,000 or more temporary troops and contractors.
And it offers a lesson on the cost of doing business out here on Cuba’s southeastern tip where under the U.S. trade embargo all business is conducted independent of the local economy.
Base not prison
Guantánamo Bay may be best known for its war-on-terror prison separated from the rest of the island by a Cuban minefield. But this 45-square-mile U.S. Navy base, leased from Cuba for $4,085 a year that Havana won’t accept, functions like a small town of 6,000 residents.
Sailors and civilians on long-term contracts run the airport, seaport, public works division and a small community hospital. They bring their families and belongings, get suburban-style homes, scuba dive in the Caribbean — and send their children to two U.S. government schools that are nearer to the base McDonald’s and bowling alley than the Detention Center Zone.
This year, there are 243 students — 164 at the elementary school and the rest at a separate building for middle and high school students whose mascot is a pirate.
In Florida, it typically costs $20,000 to $30,000 per student to build a school, according to Jaime Torrens, chief facilities officer for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. But South Florida has a “competitive environment where labor is readily available, materials are readily available.”
Guantánamo’s costs are so much higher “because all materials must be barged to the island, and the construction contractor’s crews must live on site for the duration of construction,” said Cindy Gibson, spokeswoman for the unit that runs the Department of Defense schools.
She estimated building costs are “70 percent higher than the average construction costs experienced in the United States.”
The money for the new Sampson School is tucked inside the massive, $585 billion national defense spending act that, among other things, funds the war on the Islamic State and requires that new construction projects at Guantánamo have an “enduring military value” independent of the detention operations.
It also funds the renovation or new construction of six other Defense Department schools in Belgium, Japan and North Carolina. The next most expensive is another K-12 school being built on the outskirts of Brussels for another American enclave — the children of Americans assigned to the U.S. Army or NATO at a cost of $173,441 per pupil.
Consider this: Miami High School, with an enrollment of 2,906, spent $55 million to renovate and expand its 1928 Mediterranean Revival building, working out to $18,926 per student.
The Sampson School is being built for a maximum 275-member student body ($237,054 per pupil) at one location, something smaller but similar to the exclusive 1,200-student Miami Country Day School, whose head of school John Davies’ first reaction to the price-tag was “Wow, $65 million?”
For $65 million, he said, “we could probably do our entire new master plan for the campus, a center for the arts, parking garage, new gym, new cafeteria and pretty substantial classroom building.”
But Davies studied the building proposal and found “a pretty adequate but not over-the-top construction program.” He searched the specifications and justification and “it doesn’t strike me as one of those $600 toilets or $1,000 hammer kinds of things that we get every once and a while from the GAO” — the Government Accountability Office that sometimes uncovers embarrassing examples of profligate U.S. government spending.
“Obviously we’re thinking we’ll be in Guantánamo for a long time,” he said.
To be sure, there’s no exact science for evaluating costs at the U.S.-controlled corner of Cuba. Any cost-benefit analysis is mired in political debate and difference of opinion.
Last year, for example, some Democrats in Congress got a Pentagon comptroller report on what it costs to run Guantánamo’s sprawling detention center operations, including to maintain its 2,000-plus staff and court system for seven of the last 132 detainees. It put the cost at $2.7 million per prisoner a year.
More prisoners have been released since then, meaning the Congressional crunch is more like $3.1 million per captive a year. And that price is probably higher. Some costs are classified.
In February, however, Marine Gen. John Kelly disputed that soup-to-nuts approach at a Congressional hearing. His Southern Command headquarters, with oversight of the prison, figured it cost “about $750,000” for each prisoner, he said.
Then again, he’s been seeking $69 million to replace a secret prison at Guantánamo that now holds 15 former CIA captives. It works out to $4.6 million per prisoner in construction costs, giving new meaning to the term “high-value detainees.”
Replace not renovate
The school project looks cheap by comparison. As presented to Congress, it consolidates two inefficient schools that were built in the 1970s and ’80s and have deteriorated across the decades.
The separate structures need new ventilation and air-conditioning systems, electrical upgrades of alarms and emergency systems, an updated elementary school kitchen, new bathrooms and insulation and retrofitting to meet new standards, according to a report to Congress by Chuck King, the facilities engineer for the Department of Defense Education Activity, who is based in Peachtree City, Georgia.
Instead, he proposed and Congress agreed to build the new 112,000-square-foot school on the site of today’s smaller, single-story 1983-vintage elementary school on Sherman Avenue — along the road to Camp X-Ray, the original war-on-terror prison, and the frontier with Cuba.
Students will go to school in trailers and other available space while their current building is demolished and replaced by the new one. Once the high school students move in, workers will demolish their 1975 building behind the base pub, O’Kelly’s, not far from the scrubby nine-hole golf course.
The Sampson school system, established in 1931, is named for a 19th Century U.S. Navy rear admiral who was responsible for the blockade of Cuba in the Spanish American war. It has a storied history of closings that no occasional hurricane or snow day can match.
Sampson students were sent home — evacuated back to the United States — during World War II and for three months in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The schools also closed in the mid-’90s when families were sent away as the base coped with a huge influx of tens of thousands of Cuban and Haitian migrants, housed in tent cities, that taxed this isolated outpost’s water desalination and other resources.
The new school’s plan includes state-of-the-art technology in physics, chemistry and video-broadcast labs, a music suite, LED lighting and a wireless network. It will also have space for 50 faculty and administration members, two or more floors and a stucco finish, according to the proposal to Congress.
It’s not possible to ask the kids what they think about it because Department of Defense policy shields school children from speaking with reporters on base. Besides, today’s students are mostly the children of military families that move every few years, meaning they’ll likely be gone by the time the new $65 million school opens.
It’s projected to be finished in April 2018. By then, Obama’s successor will be in office, the Pentagon will have completed a $31 million underwater fiber-optic cable between the base and South Florida and, unless Congress lifts the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, the blockade will be in its 57th year.
Miami Herald staff writer Christina Veiga contributed to this report.