Maria Kopicki and Laura Quilter have drafted a citizens’ article for the Spring Town Meeting warrant, to get a third party review (a “peer review”) of the District’s cost estimates of renovation.
On March 31, 2016, Kopicki presented to the Finance Committee about the warrant. This is the text of her statement.
Presentation to Finance Committee 3.31.16 by M. Kopicki
re: Article addressing renovation of Wildwood and Fort River Elementary Schools
Why do we need an independent assessment of renovation?
The proposal of a new, large elementary school building has not garnered the support of a majority of our elementary educators or parents. The survey conducted prior to the School Committee’s vote in January demonstrated a strong preference for maintaining the current PreK-6 structure, with many respondents specifically indicating support for renovation. There are a number of reasons for the opposition to the current proposal: environmental in terms of construction and transportation impacts, pedagogical, logistical, and, of most pertinence to this particular body, monetary.
The estimate for the new building has risen from $47-53M in October to $67.2M as of last month. Moreover, this figure does not include expenses that will be borne exclusively by the town, for example, any costs associated with renovating Crocker Farm to transition it to PreK-1 or the cost of decommissioning Fort River.
Transportation costs, both monetary and environmental, will also increase under this proposal as travel distances and times rise under this configuration and additional bus runs are required to mitigate these factors. Finally, the economy of scale promised in the original plan for a Grade 2-6 school has been diminished in the attempt to make it more palatable to the public by creating 2 schools in a single building, with two separate administrations and their attendant duplication of costs.
At the moment, we are looking at a minimum cost to the Town of ~$31M (possibly as much as $34.8M depending on final costs that could reach more than $67M and the variable amounts of MSBA reimbursement), plus Crocker Farm costs, Fort River costs, and lower annual operational savings than originally proposed—all for a large building and a grade configuration that was the least popular option surveyed.
Since the public was first engaged on this issue in the fall, parents, teachers, and residents have asked that other options be carefully considered as ways to achieve the goals of solving the structural problems of both Wildwood and Fort River Elementary Schools. Renovation, in particular, offers a number of benefits. Compared to new construction, renovation has a lower carbon impact because significantly less energy is required to demolish and then haul away to a landfill the existing structure. In addition to maintaining the current elementary grade structure, renovation could also include the addition of preschool classrooms to either Wildwood or Fort River, providing the benefits of increased accessibility to preschool, and in a location more convenient to families in the northern part of town, while simultaneously easing the current problem of overcrowding at Crocker Farm.
Examination of renovation, although required by the MSBA, was described by the Administration as cost-prohibitive long before estimates were made available. The estimates eventually presented, were indeed high, which seemed to shut the door on renovation as a practical option. However, the figures seemed surprisingly high, and a closer look at the numbers has raised many questions.
The District’s cost estimates for renovation were based on total square footage of the existing building and data from other MSBA projects. But there are problems with implementation of this methodology. First, the estimate is based on the total square footage of Wildwood, including areas that do not need to be renovated, such as the gymnasium. That estimate was then doubled to produce the estimate for Fort River, not taking into account recent renovations such as Fort River’s boiler.
Second, the District’s cost per sq ft estimates are considerably higher than other MSBA figures. For example, at the October community forum, the initial figure for renovation was cited as $390/sq ft; this was revised to $338 at the January 2016 presentation. In contrast, calculations based on MSBA-funded renovations at elementary and middle schools since 2010, and adjusted by an annual increase of 3.5% to a 2017 start date, produce a mean of $286 and a median of $300/sq ft. (See spreadsheet) These distinctions result in a dramatically different picture of total costs, on the order of several million dollars.
A larger problem with cost estimation based solely on square feet is that it is a very gross assessment, and does not allow for analysis and decision-making according to the specific needs of our buildings. Renovation has not, and will not, receive this further scrutiny within the MSBA process because that degree of detail is only required for the option that proceeds to the schematic design phase. Without this information, however, as a Town we cannot distinguish between what we MUST do and what we may LIKE to do, money-permitting.
This building process has thus far been approached from the starting premise of asking the question, “What would an ideal elementary school look like?” and then determining the cost of that ideal. That would be a wonderful approach if we had endless resources and no other capital projects on the horizon, and if the community supported the vision, but that’s not where Amherst is right now.
In a time of significant infrastructure and public works projects and needs, we ought to at least examine the alternative question: “What would it look like if we approached the elementary school building project with fiscal restraint, fixing what needs to be fixed?” Start with a budget, a reasonable figure that we can afford, and see what we can do with that, prioritizing some changes over others: addressing air quality, accessibility and other issues associated with the open classroom design at both schools, for instance. For example, if we could keep the costs per building to ~$24M each, and received MSBA funding for Wildwood at 55%, the total cost to the Town would be ~$34.8M, a figure close to the Town’s portion of the proposed single, large building but with the aforementioned advantages, including the support of more voters.
Finally, a smaller-scale, renovation-oriented approach allows us to improve urgent situations in a more timely manner. Given, for example, the problems with Wildwood’s boiler this winter, we may need to replace it even before the new school comes online. Expressed concerns about Fort River’s air quality should certainly be assessed and, if necessary, addressed immediately, rather than waiting the next several years for a new building.
We realize that this is an unusual and difficult request. Our hope and intention in making it is to provide the Town with a more complete set of information with which it can approach the decisions it faces in the coming months about this and other capital projects. The MSBA Feasibility Study began in the fall of 2014 and concludes in the spring of 2017 so there is still time to make decisions within that timeframe. We believe that renovation could be cost competitive and we are asking for a fresh, neutral accounting of this option.