The Conemaugh Township school board on Tuesday reluctantly approved contracts to send an elementary addition project to construction, despite what members described as being between a rock and a hard place.
The rock: Gov. Tom Corbett, who wants a moratorium on school construction plan reimbursements that could threaten more than $1 million in state paybacks to the district if the project is delayed.
And the hard place: That bids came in $1 million higher than expected a year ago – a fact board members blamed on their project architect before approving contracts unanimously moments later.
“We’re in a catch-22 situation. If we delay the project to look at other options, we have to go back to square one,” said Superintendent Gary Buchsen.
“It means starting over again.”
The district has been planning for elementary renovations for nearly five years.
The former Jerome school was closed last year and bids were sought to add onto Conemaugh Township elementary this summer. The project will mean 20,000 square feet in additions. That includes a gym, special education and music classrooms and expanded kitchen at the current site.
Those are needs district officials said must be filled.
They also are needs the district originally believed would cost $5.6 million to build, not the $6.6 million total approved Tuesday for general contracting, HVAC, plumbing and electrical work.
“This is an 18 percent error,” board member David Strayer told L. Robert Kimball engineers, calling it inexcusable.
“You made our decision tonight very difficult,” board member Susan Saylor-Stahl added, saying an earlier notice could have allowed the district to prepare for it.
Kimball project manager Steve Ackerman said building cost miscalculations were likely made early on, while the scope of work was still being decided.
Classroom building costs were underestimated under a previous project manager’s watch, he said, but noted Kimball officials alerted the district of it in January “as soon as we found out.”
“And until bid day,” a fellow Kimball official added, “you just don’t know.”
Ackerman noted Kimball officials offered the district a long list of “alternates” that could have enabled the board to chop project costs, including supplies and furnishings. He listed cheaper roofing material as one option and gym equipment as another.
“All together, there were dozens of options that, total, would have saved them about $500,000,” Ackerman added.
The board dismissed the idea. Stahl said it would have “stripped” the project down to “a vanilla box.”
“To me, this whole project (the board approved) was an alternate,” board member Alan Tresnicky said loudly.
He noted other classrooms were cut from earlier plans.
Now, Tuesday’s approvals will allow the project to move toward construction this summer. Also, final paperwork will go to the state before the Legislature passes a budget that could freeze project reimbursements to schools.
Avoiding that deadline means the district is virtually assured of receiving its reimbursement, regardless of what happens next, Buchsen and fellow school officials said.
The question will be when.
Nearly 230 other schools have projects in the construction planning phase and will be in line to get reimbursements from a dwindling pot, Buchsen noted. It could mean waiting two years or more for the district’s share.
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