Several factors drive up cost estimates for new high school, but school board members confident in ‘options’ to move forward

By Randi B. Hagi, contributor

The estimated cost of building the new high school has risen by $9.5 million, according to a presentation Grimm + Parker Architects made to the Harrisonburg City School Board on Monday evening.

Two representatives from the company — Jim Boyd, the principal in charge, and Paul Klee, senior project manager — explained that the estimated cost would go up to about $85.5 million from $76 million because of four primary factors:

  • A shortage of skilled labor in the mid-Atlantic region, causing labor costs to increase 10 to 20 percent;
  • A glut of public projects, including several at  James Madison University, creating a shortage of available contractors and thus an increase in bid prices;
  • An increase in material costs because of increased production costs and labor shortages;
  • And increased tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum (the school will be a steel frame construction).

These numbers reflect the expectation that, should Grimm + Parker win approval from city council to begin making more detailed design decisions later this month, construction would begin in early 2020, and the school would be open for students in the fall of 2022. That would bump up the timeline by a year from the council’s initial decision last January to move forward with a new high school.

The 11-month design process includes time for “town halls,” during which the architects would collect feedback from groups of stakeholders, such as students, parents, faculty and staff.

“We don’t want to give up on community engagement, because that’s a very important piece,” said Boyd, to murmurs of assent from the school board.

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 8.27.27 PM

A conceptual rendering of the student entry to the new city high school. Image by Grimm + Parker, courtesy of Harrisonburg City School Board.

Klee said the initial proposed design “was created in a vacuum,” based on other schools their company has designed. He said it merely reflects parameters to work within as city leaders make their decisions about what specific features they want in the new school and how its design will intersect with its curricula.

The basic design parameters of the new high school, as presented, would cover over 200,000 square feet and accommodate 1,200 students, for a student-teacher ratio of 20:1.

“We knew last year that if we delayed, it would cost more,” said Deb Fitzgerald, who was unanimously elected school board chair at the beginning of Monday’s meeting.

However, Fitzgerald said the updated estimate does not make her nervous “because this is the way they presented it to us in closed session.”

“We have options,” she said, adding that they can approve construction with future additions in mind, such as an auxiliary gym, that could be built in later stages, “which will make it possible.”

“There are lots of different ways we can mix and match to make this work by 2022,” Fitzgerald said. Some “additive options” in the presentation, including a football stadium, state-of-the-art geothermal HVAC system and an added traffic signal, would cost an extra $15 million. Some aspects within the $85.5 million estimate could be tackled in-house or outsourced to cheaper companies, such as sourcing furniture and computers.

The next step is for the City Council-School Board liaison committee to meet January 16 to discuss the updated estimate. That committee includes Fitzgerald and Andy Kohen from the school board, Interim Superintendent Patrick Lintner, city council members Chris Jones and Richard Baugh and City Manager Eric Campbell. The city council will then have the option to take up the issue of approving the project as part of the agenda for the council’s January 22 meeting.

“There are a lot of variables we need to look at,” said Obie Hill, “and consider as a board, as a city, and as a team.” Hill is one of the two newly elected board members; the other is Kristen Loflin.

Kohen said, “this is nice to know as a beginning point, but we understand that [the sample design] may change in dramatic ways.”

Also at Monday’s meeting, the school board:

  • Announced that superintendent applications will be accepted through January 15 and reviewed in a closed session on January 22;
  • Unanimously elected Kohen to the position of vice chairman;
  • Voted unanimously to adhere to the VSBA code of conduct for school board members;
  • And decided committee assignments for 2019.

Note: This post was updated to correct Paul Klee’s last name.

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