With construction projects scheduled at five of the 's six schools this summer, district officials have a huge undertaking in a tight time frame on their hands.
Now they’re scrambling to reduce the scope of some of those projects and find money elsewhere for others as new construction estimates are coming in at more than $8 million over the district’s budget.
District officials cite a number of factors for the higher estimates, including rising costs for materials like steel, higher fuel prices and less competitive bidding among subcontractors due to the economic downturn. There's also less money available because of higher-than-planned costs for the district’s 2011 school construction projects at and .
All of the projects are being paid for by Measure C, the $59.8 million bond voters approved in 2009 for overhauls at four elementary schools and the complete reconstruction of Edna Maguire school.
Because of those budget gaps, modernization work at Tam Valley, and elementary schools have been scaled back to get the $8.2 million estimate for those projects closer to the district’s $4.6 million budget, according to Tim Ryan, the district’s director of maintenance and operations.
Ryan emphasized that the vast majority of work at each school will still happen but that some popular features have been eliminated. Those reductions include parking lot upgrades and lunchtime shade structures at Park, covered walkways and bike and pedestrian improvements at Tam Valley and new kitchens and bathrooms at Strawberry Point. Turf around play structures at Park and Strawberry Point have also been eliminated.
At Mill Valley Middle School, plans to install four modular classrooms to accommodate enrollment growth are on hold as the district tries to find other funding to pay for that work. Plans to put digital wall-mounted projectors in all classrooms have been scrapped for 2012, Ryan said.
Tom Duffy, the legislative director with the school building safety advocacy group Coalition for Adequate School Housing, affirmed the district’s claim of recent cost increases in the construction business. He also said the from the traditional competitive bid process to a “lease-leaseback” system for picking contractors matched a statewide trend for districts looking to gain the advantage of time and cooperation with a contractor early in the process.
Edna Maguire’s impact
At the center of it all is the planned reconstruction of the Edna Maguire school, a $36 million project that was the subject of a in February. Because of the size of that project, district officials said they hoped estimates for it would come in under budget and that the savings could be used to pay for some Level 2 and 3 funding priorities at Park, Strawberry Point and Tam Valley.
But Overaa Construction, which was chosen to helm the Edna project, gave the district an estimate that was approximately 18 percent higher than the $28 million construction budget, a more than $5 million gap.
“We were very optimistic – maybe overly optimistic – that the prices we were seeing in 2010 and 2011 would translate in 2012,” Pete Norgaard, the project manager for district consultant Van Pelt Construction Services, told the school board last week. “But there has been a significant change over the past few months toward increased costs in construction.”
While district officials and its contractors are close to a final agreement on the reduced scope at Park, Strawberry Point and Tam Valley, Ryan said they’re still working with Overaa officials to bring the costs closer to the budget. He said he's optimistic the two sides will reach a deal, citing Overaa’s willingness to sign a separate $3.3 million contract to for the 2012-2013 school year while the new school is built. Detaching those two parts of the project with no guarantee they’ll be chosen for the reconstruction shows good faith, Ryan said.
District officials are set to meet with Overaa on Monday to come to a final agreement on Edna costs.
Edna Maguire Principal Lisa Zimmer said she’s maintained from the beginning that a new school will be fantastic, even if it does not include every element the district originally built into its design.
“We’re still totally excited,” she said. “To have a new school is amazing.”
District: No bait and switch
Ryan emphasized that the district has been clear that each project was designed beyond what was in the 2009 pre-bond implementation plan.
“We have said at every step of the way that the (non-Edna Maguire projects) were designed with additional scope so that if we had additional funds we could build them to that scope this summer,” Ryan said. “That is no longer the case, so we will now adjust to build the scope that was in the original intent of the bond.”
In June 2009, the district established funding priorities (attached at right) for the modernization work. District officials said those priorities have guided negotiations with contractors in recent weeks. Ryan said all “Level 1” upgrades, which includes Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and accommodation of increased enrollment, won’t be impacted by the reductions.
In most cases, neither will “Level 2” priorities, such as mechanical, electrical and plumbing improvements, new roofs, windows, ceilings and walls, traffic flow improvements, security systems and technology, Ryan said.
No bike path in Tam Valley
Although the district still intends to upgrade the parking lot at Tam Valley as planned, the bike and pedestrian improvements around the parking lot to connect with the new sidewalk along Bell Lane, the access road to the school, won't be made, Ryan said. The campus overhaul at Tam Valley was of 2011 and 2012 for logistical reasons.
Kathy McLeod, a Tam Valley parent and bicycle access advocate, said the bike and pedestrian improvements were central to the overhaul of the entry and parking lot of the school.
“It’s almost like you can’t do the rest of it without those improvements,” she said. “I certainly don’t want the district to spend beyond its budget but we have to make it safer there for the kids walking and biking to school.”
McLeod said she held out hope that minor upgrades and a bolstered educational outreach effort could make the area safer for students until the district can pay for the bike and pedestrian improvements.
Wendy Kallins, the program director for Safe Routes to Schools in Marin, said she was disappointed that the path can’t be built this summer but said the organization would assist the district in obtaining alternative funding sources for the path in the future if possible.
“As long as they’re willing to keep the path in their plans, we’ll try to help them find the money to pay for it,” she said.
District officials are mailing out correspondence to parents at each of the affected schools to notify them of the changes.