2015-05-13 / News

Cost to renovate Monacan rises, perturbs supervisors

By Michael Buettner

With bids for the first project on a list of major school renovations coming in well above the expected cost, county officials are seeking assurances that the estimated costs for the remaining projects aren’t going to cause sticker shock.

At a meeting last week, members of the joint Board of Supervisors/School Board Capital Construction Goals and Accountability Committee were given details on why the planned expansion and renovation of Monacan High School is now expected to cost about $3.3 million – or about 23 percent – more than the $14 million originally estimated.

The two supervisors on the committee – chairman and Matoaca District Supervisor Steve Elswick and Midlothian District Supervisor Dan Gecker – both wondered why they were first learning about the increase after the county and school system budgets for next year had already been passed. Both also said they wanted to take a close look at the estimates for the nine other projects on the list.

“We need to know the process they used to come up with the numbers for all the schools,” Elswick said. “Are they good numbers?”

In an interview, Elswick said he and his fellow committee members “have no idea how reliable” the estimates are.

He also noted that the committee was concerned about the cost estimates even before the underestimation at Monacan was disclosed. The issue “was put on the agenda for our [regular] May meeting prior to this issue at Monacan coming up” because “we want to have a clear understanding of how they came up with those numbers. I think this issue at Monacan just verifies that we need to look at this.”

Gecker agreed that the committee needs “to revisit the methodology used for making these estimates” and “to try and reach some level of comfort with them.”

In the Monacan case, Roger Richardson, an architect with BCWH Architects, explained that the cost estimate was based on the belief that the school was nearly identical, from a design perspective, to Midlothian High School, which was renovated and expanded a few years ago. Since it was assumed that the Monacan project would be identical, the cost should also be about the same.

But when his team actually visited Monacan, Richardson said, they quickly found that the two sites were not identical after all – some modifications had been made that had increased Monacan’s square footage. In addition, they found that the electrical system wasn’t adequate to support the planned expansion, and the tennis courts were located in an area the building is to be expanded into and would have to be moved, along with their lighting.

Those changes, along with higher-than-expected inflation in construction costs, added about $3.3 million to the total cost of the Monacan project.

Those higher costs were reflected in the construction bids the school system received when it put the project out to potential contractors.

The special meeting last week was called because a decision needs to be made quickly on what to do about the situation. New schools finance chief Chris Sorenson offered three options: award the contract at the higher cost, and use reserve funds to pay the difference; scale back the work to be performed to reduce the cost back to the budgeted amount; or reject the bids and try again with modified requirements.

Only the first option would allow work to start this summer, while students are out of school, and enable the project to be completed on schedule in time for the start of the 2016- 17 school year.

“Here we are having an emergency meeting because summer is coming,” Gecker noted. “When did we know we were over by $3 or $4 million?”

“I don’t believe we provided any details about that” to the school system, Richardson said. However, he said, his team provided the school system with figures concerning specific items for which the costs had increased to by July or August of last year.

School Board Chairwoman and Bermuda District representative Carrie Coyner said the School Board was not told about the cost increase before they passed this year’s proposed budget and put the project out for bids.

Coyner also said she believes members of the community believe the dollars already proposed for the revitalization projects are all that will be spent. “There’s some expectation that the money we set aside, that’s it,” she said. “But that amount of money may not meet the public’s expectation about what the school should look like” after renovation.

Gecker said it’s important to remember that the main purpose of the school revitalization program is “not to spend X dollars but to achieve parity among facilities.” He said the county government’s philosophy has long been that “no matter where you live in the county, you get the same level of government services.”

He also indicated he will probably support going ahead with the Monacan project using reserve funds to keep it on schedule. The Board of Supervisors, he said, “asked the schools to build up a capital reserve for just this type of situation.”

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