GUANTANAMO NAVY BASE, Cuba – This 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 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.
Guantanamo 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.”
Guantanamo’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 Guantanamo 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.
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 Guantanamo’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 Guantanamo 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.”
The school project looks cheap by comparison. As presented to Congress, it consolidates two inefficient schools that were built in the 1970s and 1980s and have deteriorated across the decades.