Article 38 – Opening Statement
The elementary school building project is undoubtedly controversial. The School Committee’s January 2016 survey demonstrated that both parents and teachers strongly prefer K-6 schools. Many respondents specifically supported renovating the existing schools, citing concerns for the environment, pedagogy, equity, logistics, and, cost.
Since the potential scope of the project was made generally known at the first public forum this past Fall, renovation has been described as cost-prohibitive. This was even before actual estimates were available, and even as these figures and those of new construction evolved. The estimates for renovation presented publicly before the School Committee’s reconfiguration vote were indeed high. However, a closer look at the numbers has raised many questions.
Cost estimates for renovation have been based solely on a formula that multiplies the building’s size by an assigned “dollars per square foot”. But this methodology has problems. First, the total square footage of Wildwood includes large areas such as the gym, that have not been cited as problematic or in need of complete renovation, and does not take into account differences between Wildwood and Fort River. Second, the square foot cost used has been considerably higher than other state funded elementary school renovation projects.
Additionally, the project provided two cost estimates to simply bring Wildwood up to code: one for $19 million but the other for $5 million less. While the higher estimate was presented, the lower estimate was never mentioned publicly. This is not to advocate for a simple code upgrade, or even to argue to use the lower estimate, but simply to point out that renovation might, in fact, be significantly less expensive than has been presented. All of these discrepancies produce a dramatically different picture of total costs, on the order of several million dollars.
The larger question about the existing figures for renovation has to do with the approach taken. What would renovation of these buildings cost if we employed fiscal restraint and line item decision-making? Start with a budget, a reasonable figure the Town and its people can afford, and prioritize the most important issues (HVAC, accessibility, energy efficiency, and problems associated with the open classroom design). A smaller-scale, renovation-oriented approach allows us to tackle issues in a more timely, and therefore more cost efficient, manner. For example, Wildwood’s boiler, given its problems this winter, may need to be replaced before the new school comes online. Concerns about Fort River’s air quality should be assessed and any problems should be addressed immediately, so that children and staff do not have to wait several years for the MSBA process to run its course.
Our hope and intention 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 September of 2014 and concludes 30 months later on March 25, 2017 so there is still time to get the answers we need. We believe that renovation of both Wildwood and Fort River is possible if approached in a different manner and we are asking for a fresh accounting of this option.
Numerous requests for detailed renovation costs were made throughout the fall and winter but were not met. Article 38 argues that we have a responsibility to get that information before making determinations that will have profound and lasting impacts on our public education system.
Independent reviews of capital projects are useful in resolving concerns such as these and can be easily performed within the existing timeframe of the project. The goals of this study would be to review currently available documents and produce an item by item cost estimate to address the specific major problems in the schools, and to see whether there is a better, less expensive design plan that can achieve our stated goals. This additional information about renovation, in conjunction with the fleshed out total costs to the Town of all project options, is more than justified in a project of this scale.