The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 22, 2010

Towns debate CCHS building project costs

BANDING TOGETHER. CCHS Pep Band musicians (left to right) Tim Lamere, Val Caddell and Lucy King play at a recent home football game. (Photo by Nancy Roberts)

The leaders of Carlisle and Concord appear to have differing ideas regarding the acceptable cost of the high school building project. At a meeting of committee chairs on Wednesday morning, October 13, Carlisle representatives advanced the possibility that an athletic field house might not be supported by voters when the high school project comes to Town Meeting next fall. Concord chairs believed the additional cost would not make a difference in their town’s vote.

Reasons in favor of a field house

The Master Plan anticipates the field house would be part of the first building phase and would thereafter provide needed space while other areas of the campus are renovated or replaced. Reached by phone later, Regional School Committee Chair Louis Salemy said that there is “a ton of flexibility” to the schematic design phase. “We’re in the early, early stages.” He says the Master Plan does not limit what can be considered, but points to “an approach we want to accomplish” which he defines as “take a sprawling campus and make it more compact.”

“The field house was always an integral part of the project,” he says. Not only would it allow after-school programs to expand, but it solves the problem of where to put students while later phases of the project go forward. One of the concerns with a rebuilding project, he notes, is how to phase to minimize moving and disruption. Without the field house, more phases would be required, adding to time of completion and, potentially, costs. In numerous public forums, the community has indicated field house support, says Salemy.

Asked whether the Concord-Carlisle School Building Committee (CCBC) will consider a design alternative without the field house, Salemy said it may take a while. Finances were not a major topic at the CCBC meeting on the evening of October 13. Salemy said that the focus over the next month or so will be on hiring an Owners Project Manager, and the feasibility study will take another several months. He anticipates discussion on a design will begin around May 2011 (see related article on page 8).

State offers aid for smaller project

The agreement with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), signed in late September, anticipates a cost of between $75 and $85 million, with around 32% to be reimbursed by the state. Excluded is the field house costing up to $13 million which is part of the Master Plan. The field house would have to be fully funded by the two towns if it were to be retained, bringing the total project cost to as much as $95 million.

Salemy also explained that the lowest level of MSBA reimbursement is 31%, but the building committee anticipates adding up to four percentage points under the green incentive program. “This will be the greenest of green buildings, he said. He added, “Voters should be extremely happy MSBA is involved,” not only for the funding, but for its oversight of “realistic, not exorbitant costs to the towns.”

Priorities include cost containment, speed to bid

CCBC Co-Chair Jerry Wedge said his committee has prioritized cost containment, bringing the original $108 million project estimate down considerably. “We will not approach that number,” he said. Also, the 35,000 square foot field house, estimated to cost $13 million, could be made smaller and the price reduced.

A goal of the committee and the MSBA is “to be out to bid as fast as possible,” said Wedge. “This is a great bidding climate,” and any delay could add to costs. He said a school project in Natick recently received bids $10 million less than expected.

September of 2011 is targeted for an MSBA board vote on the schematic design, after which the towns have 120 days to hold Special Town Meetings, probably in early November, 2011. Concord Finance Director Tony Logalbo noted that the warrants at the Town Meetings would be written so allocated sums could later be reduced if grants or private donations were received.

Troubled about field house

Carlisle Board of Selectmen Chair John Williams said, “I’m a little bit troubled that the field house is part of the deal. I don’t see any support in Carlisle for anything MSBA is not going to support. I think that will be problematic.” He believes Carlisle voters are expecting to pay a similar amount for the high school as for the Carlisle School project, approximately $13 million. Added to Concord’s share and the MSBA grant, this would indicate a high school project totaling about $75 million.

He continued, “I’m concerned about the process. How do we explain to taxpayers, why this price?” He said that before Carlisle began the elementary school project, the impact of various financing levels was analyzed and the cost was reduced from an anticipated $65 million down to $20 million. A similar process should be undertaken at the high school. “Let’s look at a $65 million project and see what the tradeoffs are, and how that would affect the curriculum, as a point of comparison.”

“I don’t understand $65 million,” Wedge said, noting his surprise at the pushback on price. “In our minds, there’s community support for this project.” He explained, “Last year the estimate was $108 million. We’ve been working down from that, but 108 to 65? We never heard that.” He said the scope of the project was determined after considerable community outreach, and the feasibility study was approved almost unanimously at both Town Meetings with warrant articles that specified a project of up to $108 million. Williams clarified that he was not endorsing a $65 million plan, but would “like to see what the tradeoffs are.”

Carlisle Treasurer Larry Barton asked, “If the field house is necessary to the design and really integral to the overall plan, what do we do if the field house is not approved?” He suggested an alternate design be developed without the field house, adding that a $75 million project might easily pass, but “The appetite might be too high for the town of Carlisle if it becomes $85 or $90 million.”

Concord Selectman Chair Jeffrey Wieand asked about the origin of the Carlisle cost assumptions. Carlisle FinCom Chair Dave Model noted a Long-Term Planning Committee led by then-Selectman Tim Hult had looked at town costs to determine how to afford both the Carlisle School and CCHS projects. It was estimated that the town could handle two building projects if Carlisle’s share of the CCHS renovation was about the same size as the net cost of the Carlisle School project. The resulting presentation to 2009 Town Meeting had included the assumption that the two projects would have roughly equal costs. Regarding the high school, Barton added, “$108 million was the master plan number, and the knee jerk reaction was ‘That number is ridiculous.’ We had to show an understanding there is an upper end.”

Logalbo gave the Concord perspective, saying “We want the best project with MSBA guidance.” He said that the high school will cause a 4 to 6% increase in taxes in Concord, and whether it’s one number or the other “won’t make much difference at the ballot box.” Wieand added, “Every effort should be made to be as efficient as possible” but it was noted that $10 million for a field house, spread over two towns and 30 years, would not impact taxes very much. Barton agreed: “An extra $10 million is not a large marginal amount,” but, “the financial discussion is important to garner community support.”

Salemy suggested that an analysis be done of various project price points. “It’s an easy exercise to do, and will give us a political leg to stand on with voters.” He noted that working with MSBA should give credibility to the project, since the organization has extensive school building experience and subjects each plan to rigorous analysis. High School Finance Director John Flaherty reminded him that “delay is costly” if time spent on analysis causes the project to miss the window of opportunity afforded by a low-bid environment.

Wedge, responding to a question from Model, said that FinCom members are not allowed to be part of the CCBC as this is a conflict of interest, but Carlisle is well represented, with Co-Chair Karla Johnson and members Salemy, Tim Hult, Bill Tice and Stan Durlacher. Each member is expected to provide community outreach and to represent town concerns. Hult was a member of the Building Committee during cost discussions, Wedge noted, adding, “$82 to $92 million shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.”

Salemy pointed to the value of monthly chairs meetings to derive “a commonality for thoughts on project cost” so that communications with voters in each town are consistent. Barton added, “It’s not our job to advocate (for the high school), but we don’t want it to fail for lack of discussion. Let’s get a project we can build and get support for.” He added, “We want a positive outcome. We all think something has to happen at the high school.”

As the time expired and the meeting came to an abrupt end, Wieand responded, ”We all got the message.” ∆

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