The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 20, 2014

Windber delays choosing architect

David Hurst

WINDBER — Campuswide renovations have been a Windber Area school board meeting mainstay over the past six months, with millions in upgrades eyed for the coming years.

But settling on a deal with an architect to steer the projects has been delayed by contract details and board members’ summer schedules.

District officials tabled the matter again on Tuesday – this time because one board member said he was not prepared to vote on the deal and another did not make the meeting.

It prompted some board members to warn that the pattern is starting to delay the project, which was initially expected to be outlined in detail at a state-required public hearing by midsummer. Because of various scheduling issues, efforts Tuesday couldn’t yield a date for a necessary precursor – voting on the architectural contract – until July 7.

“We need to vote on this soon,” board President Timothy Tokarsky said. “If not, then what the heck are we doing?”

Until this week, the board appeared to be split on Harrisburg-based architects McKissick Associates’ proposal to oversee the project, which is expected to include major overhauls at the middle-high school and Windber Stadium.

After the matter was tabled last month due to what Superintendent Rick Huffman called “differences in opinion” regarding financial terms, district officials sat down with the firm’s representatives and hammered out a contract Windber Solicitor Samuel Clapper said addresses those issues “with an arrangement that’s fair for both sides.”

“I think we’ve arrived at a good deal here,” Clapper said, crediting McKissick.

But the vote didn’t come on Tuesday.

One member, Michael Betcher, was absent. Two board members – Steve Kormanik and Barry Hostetler, must abstain from voting because their employer, H.F. Lenz Co., is the district’s longtime engineer, and acts as a consultant in building projects.

Another member, Robert Marhefka, said he was not prepared to vote because he had not reviewed contract changes.

As drafted, the contract would pay McKissick on a sliding scale that would vary based on the total cost of each project put out for bid. That percentage, in the 5 percent range, would vary based on the amount of new construction and renovations, with new construction – such as a proposed addition to the high school – at slightly lower rates.

The firm would collect a flat 5.8 percent of the total project cost if all phases of the project, including high school, stadium and elementary work, wrap at the same time, Clapper said.

A one-bid option would be a cost-saver, avoiding expenses associated with doing the same bid work two or three times in multiple phases.

Tokarsky said the board has been striving to get some “predictability” in the contract, while acknowledging project designs and engineering are always based on estimates that can be driven up and down based on timing and economic conditions.

“I think this deal allows us to hedge our bets,” he said, noting that if project bids come in above architectural estimates, McKissick would make necessary changes at no additional cost to get the renovations in line with Windber’s budget for the work.

In the past month, nearby Forest Hills schools decided to rework its middle and high school project plans because the total job ended up nearly 20 percent above initial estimates. The changes will set the project back a year.

While Windber school officials didn’t mention Forest Hills by name, they described it as a “recent” scenario they hope to avoid.

Windber’s new project schedule now pushes the mandated Act 34 hearing to Sept. 2, Huffman said Thursday.

The contract discussions and rescheduling “domino effect” likely will delay any initial project work by a few months, “but it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said.

“We have board members scrutinizing the project and the numbers and trying to be good stewards of the public’s money. Their due diligence doesn’t surprise me,” he added. “If there are questions, now is the time to be asking them. Now is the time to be smoothing out any possible concerns.”

David Hurst covers Windber Area School District for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at tddavidhurst