School board opts to retain green features at new high school

The Vashon Island School Board decided last week to continue with two energy-saving systems for the new high school building rather than axe them from plans to help address cost increases the project is facing.

After a brief discussion at a meeting last week, no one on the board put forward a motion to jettison an air-to-water heat pump and a rainwater harvest system, two green measures that can save the district in operating costs. If removed from the budget, the district would have saved $360,000 in construction costs.

“We’re building this for 50 years,” board member Kathy Jones noted at Thursday night’s meeting. “I think we should stick with our original choices.”

Steve Ellison, another commissioner, concurred. “The value of changing the course right now is not a great value,” he said.

Under the latest version of the budget, the district will cover the additional costs — due in part to some of the bids coming in about 2.7 percent higher than anticipated — by using a portion of a $2.75 million state grant the district received to assist in the construction of the new high school. The district also has contingency funds it can dip into if costs escalate, administrators and board members noted Thursday.

The higher costs mean the project is now a $49 million one — not a $47.7 million project, as initially presented to voters. But Dan Chasan, who chairs the board, said the project may end up costing less than $49 million.

“It is in the budget, but not everything in the budget has been or will be spent,” he said. “So while the budget has increased by that amount, the cost of construction won’t necessarily increase.”

What’s more, he said, with most of the bids in and the dirt work completed, “The two biggest uncertainties are behind us.”

Superintendent Michael Soltman said costs have increased because “the bid climate changed remarkably” between the passage of the bond in February 2011 and the start of the project this summer.

Construction has picked up considerably in the Seattle area, making the situation more competitive for the small school district. What’s more, Soltman said, the recession put some contractors out of business, resulting in a smaller pool of contractors who could bid on jobs.

“Skanska had to work hard to get bidders for these jobs,” Soltman said, referring to the district’s general contractor.

Other costs have gone up as well, said Eric Gill, the district’s capital projects manager, because of changes the school board has made. For instance, he said, the board decided to upgrade the exterior siding of the building, using materials that will last longer and not need paint.

“These were conscious decisions by the board,” he said.

But Hilary Emmer, one of the only members of the public who attended last week’s special board meeting, said she was concerned that the board was deciding to use the state funds “before we’ve even poured any concrete.”

“They’re making me nervous,” she said of the board. “Anything that’s being recommended, they’re saying, ‘OK.’ ... We just barely started this job.”

Chasan, however, said the board still has lots of tough decisions to make in the weeks ahead as it works to manage the project’s budget.

“With costs coming in high, we’ll have to decide — do we pull some things out now or eat into the contingencies,” he said. “We’ll have other such decisions before us.”


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