School board faces tough choices after MISA bids come in high

After bids for the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project at Greenwich High School came in higher than expected, the Board of Education once again finds itself at a crossroads over the project.

According to Joe Ross, chairman of the project’s building committee, and Turner Construction, which is serving as construction manager, estimates in several key areas were above what was projected, and if the current bids are accepted as is for MISA, the project costs would go up approximately $7.1 million to $36 million for the actual construction of a new auditorium and classroom space. However, several options are on the table to reduce that cost, including major changes to the proposed auditorium design, like eliminating balcony seating and an orchestra pit to save about $2 million.

Other savings could be found through rebidding, Mr. Ross said, and the board could also choose to push forward with the project as is, necessitating new approvals from the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) and Representative Town Meeting (RTM) for the cost difference. The bids that have been presented are all set to expire on July 7, and Chairman Leslie Moriarty has said the Board of Education will move quickly to reach a decision on this to be able to provide direction to the building committee. She said this week that the board, which meets tonight at 7 p.m. in Western Middle School, is hoping to have a decision ready for May so a path is clear with time to spare by July 7.

Ms. Moriarty acknowledged in a briefing before the BET on Monday night that one of the options on the table was a “significantly lesser project scope.” However that was met with some skepticism from members of the finance board, just as it was from Ms. Moriarty’s colleagues. BET member Randall Huffman expressed concern that mistakes of the past, where the auditorium was cut back during the initial GHS construction and its renovation, were being repeated.

BET member Sean Goldrick also said this, and wondered if this was the same spot past boards had found themselves in.

“Here we are again trying to cut this back into something inferior,” Mr. Goldrick said, noting that neighboring towns like Wilton, with fewer students, have been able to afford new auditoriums and that this was a project Greenwich had to get right. “We’re just going to have to bite the bullet on this.”

He said that it was a fact of an improving economy that construction prices were going up and that a better economic forecast made it clearer that the town could afford to cover the increased costs without major changes to the project design. Mr. Goldrick said the town had options to pay for it, including longer term financing and the “significant” cash on hand in the town’s general fund.

While not specifically echoing Mr. Goldrick’s sentiments on how possibly to pay for it, BET member Joseph Pellegrino, chairman of the budget committee, also expressed skepticism over changing the design of the auditorium. He said removing the balcony, which would reduce the seating capacity, was a “non-starter” to him because increasing the number of seats was one of the reasons MISA was happening in the first place. He said he wasn’t qualified to determine if the project needed the orchestra pit, but urged the board to remember this project was meant for the long term.

“Remember, the shelf life of this facility is 40 years,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “There’s a lot of performances that are going to happen in 40 years. What do you want to do? That’s the key point you have to decide.”

Mr. Pellegrino also warned away from any major redesign of the project, saying it would require the Board of Education to once again go through the town’s building approval process, which it has already passed through with the current design of MISA.

“How many pretzels are you going to turn yourselves into?” Mr. Pellegrino asked.

There is currently a $3.1-million budget line in the 2013-14 municipal budget for MISA. Ms. Moriarty told BET Chairman Michael Mason the board would have direction for him before tonight’s BET budget vote on whether to remove the line, increase it or leave it as is. That decision, which came after deadline for this week’s edition of the Post, is largely separate from the decision of what to do about the higher-than-expected costs.

Ms. Moriarty was one of several Board of Education members present for Monday’s BET meeting, along with Superintendent of Schools William McKersie. Ms. Moriarty said this shows the board’s ongoing commitment to MISA. But what the project will look like remains the open question. The high bids were first discussed at the MISA Building Committee’s March 12 meeting, and on March 14, Mr. Ross and Turner gave a formal presentation to the board at a special meeting about the bids and why they came in high.

Mr. Ross speculated that the contaminated soil at GHS, which was discovered during the MISA construction and will force a full remediation of the site, may have scared off some companies in areas where more bids were expected than were received, but he also put the blame on the rising costs of construction as demand for supplies and workers increases. While some costs, including demolition of the existing auditorium and electrical work, came in below the estimates from Turner, items like concrete and steel and masonry and plumbing work, as well as supplies like tile and curtains, came in above.

“I think what we’re seeing is a market bubble right now, which is different than escalation,” Lynn Temple, Turner Construction’s chief estimator for its Connecticut office, told the board. “We’re seeing areas that hadn’t had work in a long time getting work. There’s over a billion dollars in work just between the UConn work and other schools in the state that have come out during the past couple of months.”

Because these multimillion dollar projects are out there using the same firms that Turner wanted bids from, the firms’ bonding capacity is down and their ability to bid and take jobs is down. Mr. Temple added that the demand for these firms is up, but because many of them laid people off during the economic downturn, there is not much they can do.

“This is not just happening here,” Mr. Temple said. “It’s not just this job.”

Mr. Ross said the project cost could be brought down to approximately $2 million total with the elimination of the orchestra pit, which itself is thought to save more than $1 million, and the balcony seating. Another idea being discussed is to save costs by not demolishing the auditorium but rather renovating it to turn it into reduced classroom space. One idea that is apparently off the table, though, is renovating the existing auditorium into a new one, because it would not be able to meet district needs.

Mr. Ross also reported there was an alternate budget in place within the building committee that removed several items as “nice to haves” that they wanted to try to include. This version of the budget, which is stripped down in some aesthetic areas but doesn’t make the major changes of other options, would save the town about $600,000 in construction costs.

Specifics of what the reduced options would entail and how the project could still be built with them are still being developed, but board members wondered if it even made sense to explore these options. While they said they were concerned about the rising costs, they also were reluctant to impact the programming that has driven the need for the project from its inception.

“I’m not in favor of cutting the size of the auditorium,” board member Steven Anderson said, making the same point Mr. Pellegrino made days later. “If we’re only gaining 275 seats by doing a $20-million project, that’s a very expensive per-seat add. If you’re going to do the auditorium, first and foremost you’ve got to do it right.”

Board member Adriana Ospina added, “To start cutting programs to save money to a certain extent, we will be where the board was years ago when there was a shortage of money and a certain budget and a decision was made to ask, ‘With the money that we have, what can we build?’ To me, personally, that’s not the way I want to go about it. It’s very important to me to understand what cuts I can make that do not hurt the program.”

Ms. Moriarty also cited decisions made by prior boards as something to be avoided as she stressed the current board’s commitment to MISA.

“I know every member of this board is not going to make the same mistake that was made 40 years ago, and then 15 years ago, and not do right by this project,” Ms. Moriarty said. “We need not make decisions now that will be regretted down the road. But we also need to understand the cost implications of those decisions.”


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