To offset rising construction costs, Fort Worth school district officials are considering cutting $45 million from the $490 million bond package approved by voters last year.
A proposal by Interim Superintendent Pat Linares, which is expected to be unveiled to a citizens’ bond oversight committee Monday night, includes building fewer pre-kindergarten and regular classroom additions and deferring maintenance at school facilities and buildings. Linares is also recommending that the district not spend money immediately for new auditorium seating.
“We began to hear that the escalation costs for our bond program were rising at such a significant level that we would not be able to complete all of our projects if we didn’t take a step back,” Linares said.
The district is seeking up to $45 million in cuts because almost every project in the 2013 referendum was based on a square-footage cost far below the market, said Vicki Burris, the district’s chief officer for capital projects administration. The bond was passed on a price projection of $180 per square foot, but construction contractors are saying the work cannot be accomplished for less than $216 per square foot.
“We have to take a proactive stance,” Linares said.
The North Texas construction market is experiencing a labor shortage, industry experts have told district officials. Subcontractors, in some cases, have raised prices to make up for lost revenue during the economic recession.
In September, the district experienced the issue first-hand when a package of bids for construction of a new school — Washington Heights Elementary School — came in over budget. The lowest bid from a handful of construction companies was $2 million to $3 million above the bond budget of $9.6 million, district officials said.
Once priority projects are completed, Linares said, recommended cuts, such as the project to install new auditorium seating at 13 high schools, could be addressed.
“We’re saying that we’re not going to do that,” Linares said. “But that’s going to be at the end of the bond. It will be done if we have the money for it.”
The district also expects to save up to $9 million on two showcase specialty schools — STEM Academy and the Visual and Performing Arts Center — by using land and facilities that the district already owns, Linares said.
Last week board members voted 7-2 to house the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Academy, set to open in fall 2015, at the site of a renovated Leonard Sixth Grade Center in Benbrook.
A site for the Visual and Performing Arts Center hasn’t been determined, and board members are split on where it should go. Some, including Ashley Paz, Jacinto Ramos and board President Norman Robbins, support Linares’ recommendation to house the school in the Cultural District on land near Farrington Field. But other board members have expressed a desire to research the option of selling or leasing the property to improve the district’s bottom line.
The citizens’ bond oversight committee was established to make recommendations to the board regarding the cost and scope of projects in the $490 million bond package. The board has the final say on any changes to bond projects.
Committee Chairman Isaac Manning has urged the district staff to explore cost reduction ideas to be reviewed by the committee.
In upcoming weeks, the district says it plans to comb through individual project budgets to bring them closer to actual budgets. As part of that review, adjustments are expected to be made in more than 30 projects in pre-design or still under development. An additional two dozen or more projects that have completed designs and construction documents may be examined for cost reductions, changes in scope and “opportunities for value engineering,” officials said.
Value engineering is a construction term indicating that cheaper construction materials are substituted without affecting quality. The district’s plan to use value engineering is not expected to lower the academic value of classroom programs, Burris has said.
Of the $490 million in the package, $357.3 million is to be spent to build two new elementary schools, the arts center, the STEM Academy and dozens of classroom additions and renovations at numerous existing schools. The package also includes $102.6 million in technology improvements, such as new laptops for students and a campuswide security system. An additional $30 million is expected to be spent on district operations, including buses.
Construction is expected to take place over the next four years. So far, the district has paid $43 million in bond funds to contractors, officials said.