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June 11, 2014

Forest Hills pares school plan by more than $8M; project delayed a year

SIDMAN — More than $8 million has been trimmed from the proposed Forest Hills Middle High School plan. The reductions were something the district “scrutinized” after bids opened in Feburary were far higher than expected, said Superintendent Edwin Bowser.

“It was a big issue. We were over 19.7 percent,” he told The Tribune-Democrat.

But how did that happen?

“We don’t know. In December, we were given an estimate from the architect of $48 million – that was Dec. 2, 2013,” he said. “Two months later, it came in at $57 million. That certainly exceeded all projections, so we rejected all the bids.”

Nearly $1.5 million was saved on a roof redesign, new construction materials and a redraw of the planned canopies. Almost $7 million was saved inside, after re-evaluation of the partitions, detailing, replacement of the proposed wood ceilings with acoustic panels, inclusion of linoleum tile in lieu of terrazzo and other minor changes. Changes to mechanical and electrical systems accounted for about $1.4 million.

“We eliminated the auxiliary gym – that was a big cut for us,” Bowser said.

Four other classrooms were cut, but the school design allows them to be added later.

“We still feel it’s a great building,” he added. “(It’s) still multipurposed and educationally sound.”

The total project cost has also been revised to $47.8 million, just $300,000 more than the February projection. A 5 percent contingency – $2.5 million – was included, putting the district’s absolute price ceiling at $50 million. Although the total cost has jumped slightly since the initial estimate, which avoided the Act 34 community referendum, engineers are confident that the final cost won’t cause the plans to go back under public review.

But the plan revisions have pushed back the project by an entire year, Bowser said.

“It was a very aggressive timeline we adopted – 18 months,” he said. “That was part of the reason that we feel that the bids came in high because the contractors we believe front-loaded for liquidated damages.”

An updated timeline was reviewed at the district’s Wednesday combination committee meeting. The redesign will be nearly complete by mid-September, according to the new schedule. Advertisements for re-bids are set to go out in October, with bids returned by Nov. 6 and the vote to award the lowest bidding contractor on Nov. 12. Architects are looking to break ground on or around Thanksgiving.

During the committee meeting, Bowser voiced concerns that the foundation might not be laid before the snow starts falling. The project has already hit major delays and a lack of progress before winter would only smash construction up against the start of the 2016 school year, when the building is expected to open.

“We feel confident that it’s going to happen and it’s imperative that it has to happen,” Bowser said.

The district would like to use “phase bidding” – bidding out each leg of the project separately - to buy more time in the long run. However, since the project falls under the “Taj Mahal” Act 34, phase bidding is disallowed by the state Department of Education. Engineers will seek an exception on behalf of the district.

During the district’s regular board meeting, the 2014-15 budget of $45,168,864 was adopted with no tax rate increase. Real estate millage will remain at 48.5. Bowser said the district has held the line on taxes for roughly two decades.

Finally, the resignation of longtime district Solicitor Gilbert Caroff was accepted by the board. Caroff spent 55 years working with the school board, Bowser said, and was “instrumental” in his transition to superintendent.

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinDennis.

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