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More cutbacks proposed in FWISD bond program

Interim school Superintendent Pat Linares is recommending that the district open its showcase STEM Academy at a renovated Leonard Sixth Grade Center, in part to save money as part of the district’s $490 million bond program.

“Based on recommendations I’ve had from staff and what I’ve heard here, that is probably what is going to be the recommendation unless y’all turn around and say ‘no,’ ” Linares said at a special board workshop on Wednesday.

The board is expected to vote on Linares’ recommendations on Tuesday.

The district is looking at the possibility of scaling back almost every project approved for the bond program. School officials say the construction industry is experiencing a labor shortage, which is increasing construction costs.

Other cost-saving options presented Wednesday included the construction of fewer classrooms at several elementary schools for pre-kindergarten programs, school officials said.

Linares offered two options for renovating existing school facilities for the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) Academy. One option was at Metro Opportunity School, 2720 Cullen St. The other is at Leonard Sixth Grade, which has a capacity for more than 600 students. Either option could save as much as $5.5 million, said Elsie Schiro, the district’s chief financial officer.

The board, at first, was split on the options. Trustees Cinto Ramos and Matthew Avila liked the central location provided by Metro Opportunity. Trustee Tobi Jackson said Leonard Sixth Grade has a gym and outdoor facility that could provide students with physical education opportunities.

Under the district’s bond budget, voters approved $12.5 million for a new STEM Academy. The renovations could cost as little as $3 million, school officials said.

The academy is expected to open in fall 2015.

“We’d like to move forward with this,’’ Linares said. “Especially if we want to open this school in the fall of ’15.”

Other workshop discussion focused on ideas for other bond program savings.

For example, the district had planned to provide 20 additional pre-kindergarten classrooms at Mitchell Boulevard, Benbrook and Moss elementary schools. Now officials are looking at eight fewer classrooms to save about $2.4 million, district records show. In addition, two fewer classrooms could be built at Tanglewood Elementary School for a savings of $600,000, records show.

Plans for almost every project were based on a square-footage cost far below the current 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.

Already, board members have asked that plans for the new Washington Heights Elementary School be redesigned after bids came in more than $2 million to $3 million over the $9.6 million budgeted in the bond.

In coming weeks, the district is expected to conduct a wholesale review of bond projects 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 scrubbed for cost reductions, changes in scope and “opportunities for value engineering,” officials said.

At the Wednesday workshop, board members said the district likely will have to scale back projects to try to reduce costs. It may also have to redistribute bond funds to make some projects a priority. In other cases, it will have to “value engineer” projects in order to save money, Avila said. Value engineering is a term used in the industry that refers to a replacement of materials or methods in order to save money without sacrificing quality.

“We may not be able to completely overcome these cost escalation issues,’’ Avila said. “That’s the environment that we’re in, that’s what we’re dealing with; we’re in the first third of this market cycle, so the escalation that we’re seeing and the numbers coming in over budget is not particular to a particular district.

“It’s an industry phenomenon in this region and we’re going to have to deal with it throughout the course of this bond program.”

During the discussion, trustee Christene Moss demanded that school officials provide her with bid packages for each of the construction companies providing estimates on school projects. In past bonds, the district has treated minority contracting companies unfairly. Moss said she didn’t want to see a repeat of that.

“I want to see it, who’s bidding and the whole works,” Moss said. “We’re supposed to see that.”

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