Bids for new Fort Worth school come in over budget

On the evening of June 10, the gleaming facade of a modern Washington Heights Elementary School zoomed across the overhead screen of a boardroom filled with school district parents, educators and trustees.

The screen displayed an eco-friendly building that looked more like a miniature community college than an elementary school. The new campus, school officials said, would replace the current Washington Heights, an underground campus at 3215 Houston St. that was built in the 1970s.

The new school was a promise made to voters under the Fort Worth school district’s $490 million bond program approved last year. Now, months after the visual unveiling, the prospect of a new, 60,000-square-foot campus is teetering on uncertainty.

“I really did like the first presentation that you gave us to the public, so that’s what we’re expecting,” the mother of two students at Washington Heights told school officials at a September bond oversight committee meeting. “And now you’re coming back and telling us you’re not going to build us that school?”

School officials say the cost to build the school is at least 25 percent more than the $10 million originally budgeted for the campus. This month, the “low bid” submitted to the school district by construction companies was $2.5 million more than the district had intended to spend, construction managers and school officials have said.

“Some things we would have liked to have in the district, we would not be, necessarily be, able to do with that project,” said Wayne Warren, construction manager for AECOM Inc., the Los Angeles-based company hired by the school district to oversee construction.

“But we’re still working to come up with ‘value engineering’ ideas that still get us ultimately to what’s desirable for the district,” Warren told a citizens’ bond oversight committee of district parents and volunteers at a Sept. 15 meeting.

Value engineering is a term used by construction experts to explain the substitution of materials and methods with less-expensive alternatives without sacrificing functionality.

Changing the plans

Over the next two to four months, school officials plan to request new bids from construction companies for work on the new Washington Heights, school officials have said.

As the re-bid process gets underway, architects and other construction experts also will have to go back to the drawing board to make adjustments to the original plans in order to meet the $10 million budget, Warren told interim Superintendent Pat Linares and other committee members.

Options include reducing the size of the new campus, which was bid at 60,000 square feet, Linares said Friday. An original plan released last year showed the campus would be 50,000 square feet, or about 10,000 feet larger than the existing campus, Linares said.

Another option to reduce costs includes a renovation of the existing gym at the original school. Under that option, a new gym would not be constructed at the new campus, Warren said.

Ramos, who represents the Washington Heights community on the school board, said the community’s No. 1 priority was that the school would have plenty of room. A recent demographer’s report shows the campus is a no-growth school, but Ramos is skeptical of that.

The school currently enrolls about 347 students, district records show.

“The community wants their new school at the size that was promised to them,” Ramos said. And “the eco-friendly stuff was secondary to them [parents]. It is more about, ‘Don’t take away our space and don’t take away our gym.’ ”

Rising construction costs

A district committee of parent volunteers and community members is reviewing the expenditures under the bond program. The committee’s top concern is that the district deliver on its promises to voters.

At its September meeting, committee members, including Linares, grappled with the idea that rising construction costs could hamper construction budgets.

“Are we anticipating $216 a square foot for every project, is that what I’m hearing?” Linares asked Warren. “I want to make sure we are clear.”

Under the district’s 2007 bond program, construction costs averaged at about $150 a square foot.

Committee Chairman Isaac Manning said: “We’re seeing construction escalation that’s ridiculous right now.”

He then directed Warren to meet with parents and principals at Washington Heights to discuss the dilemma.

“One of the things you’ve got to do … whenever you run into one of these … is you’ve got to make sure that the board member and principal and the parents are involved,” Manning told Warren. “Go back to the drawing board, get with the [school’s] community leaders … then get get back to us.”