School board chooses Nielsen Builders to construct new high school

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Conceptual rendering of the new city high school. Image courtesy of the Harrisonburg School Board.

By Randi B. Hagi, senior contributor

Harrisonburg is one step closer to building a second high school, with the school board voting unanimously on Tuesday night to seek city council’s approval to develop an interim agreement with Nielsen Builders, Inc.

Earlier this year, Nielsen submitted an unsolicited bid to construct the high school using a “design/build” approach, under the Virginia Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act (PPEA) of 2002. Pursuant to the PPEA, the school board then opened a 45-day window for other contractors to bid on the project. Two additional bids came in during that time.

School board Chair Deb Fitzgerald said after the meeting that each bid was evaluated on a seven-criteria rubric, and that Nielsen scored the best. She also noted that while each bid included information about subcontractors, Nielsen “did this with the most depth,” submitting a detailed list of HVAC installers, plumbers, and others. Nielsen will use Grimm + Parker Architects for the building design.

Superintendent Michael Richards, whose first official day in the position was last Wednesday, will present the interim agreement to city council at is next meeting, on Tuesday, May 14.

If the city council approves an agreement between the school board and Nielsen, the school board will ask city council for a $3.3 million supplemental appropriation to pay the contract price.


Images of the 60-acre property where the second city high school will be built. Photos courtesy of Joe Fitzgerald.

That $3.3 million price includes architectural, engineering, and other design services, which the school board will review at 25 percent, 40 percent, and 60 percent completion. Upon school board’s approval of designs at that 60 percent mark, Nielsen will submit a comprehensive agreement that will include a guaranteed maximum price for the school’s construction. The draft interim agreement between the school board and Nielsen includes a Sept. 23 “interim milestone” for submission of this comprehensive agreement and final price tag.

The document does not include any estimate of what that guaranteed maximum price will be. Before Nielsen submitted its unsolicited proposal, Grimm + Parker had estimated that the new school would cost about $85.5 million. Fitzgerald told the Citizen in February that considering the PPEA design/bid proposals “increases the probability, by a lot, that we’re going to get the school, and we’re going to get the school for a better price than we thought.”

“I’m glad we’re at this stage,” said vice chair Andy Kohen. “We’ve been at this a long time.”

School board member Obie Hill said it “is just amazing” to be overseeing this project as a school board member, while also “being a parent, being a resident of Harrisonburg.”

Kristen Loflin, another board member, said she is excited at the prospect of students being able to connect more deeply with faculty and staff at a new, less-crowded high school.

During the meeting, board member Nick Swayne pointed out that “there’s a lot of work that has to get done still.”

A programming committee will give community members the chance to participate in some of that work. The committee, which due to space constraints will be capped at about 60 people, will include school board members, parents, students, and local residents selected by the board and school staff, to “ensure a diverse pool of public participants,” Richards said. “A lot of voices need to be heard.”

“We intend to engage the entire community,” said Kohen.

That process will begin on Thursday, May 16. A building committee and a design committee, which will include a variety of school staff, are also now forming to provide input to the design phase.

Still other opportunities for community involvement could include an internet forum or community survey, Richards said.

Fitzgerald said that, in considering every possible idea, the committees and school board are sure to discuss some options that ultimately don’t make it into the final design. She encouraged anyone with questions about the process along the way to speak up.

“We’ll know the answers to your questions,” she said. “Just ask.”

Craig Mackail, assistant superintendent of operations and school safety, pointed out that some of the design options listed in the drafted interim agreement are merely placeholders, whose functions will be determined later in the design process.

Students influence curriculm

Eating disorders and mental health education may soon feature more prominently in middle school health classes. During board announcements, Loflin said that she had received letters from eighth grade civics students asking the school board to add these topics to their health curriculum.

Loflin said she was “so, so impressed with these kiddos,” adding that “things will happen … keep sending letters.”

Fitzgerald praised the teachers who organized the letter-writing project.

Also in the meeting:

  • Patrick Lintner, who returned to his former position of assistant superintendent for instruction after serving as the interim superintendent, was unanimously approved to attend board meetings when Richards is absent.
  • Richards said that he will meet with Cambridge Strategic Services next week for a preliminary discussion about the upcoming strategic plan process.
  • Swayne was commended for receiving a Future Engineer grant from Amazon to fund computer science technology and start a Lego robotics team at Thomas Harrison Middle School.
  • Richards recognized school nutrition employees, national school nurse day, and teacher appreciation week during his comments. On Tuesday morning, the division sent Mr. J’s breakfasts to teachers to show its appreciation for their work.
  • Harrisonburg High School student Nyah Phengsitthy, editor-in-chief of the Newsstreak, was recognized for receiving the Virginia State Journalist of the Year award and placing as a runner-up for National Student Journalist of the Year at the Spring National High School Journalism Convention.

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