Fort Worth

Fort Worth school district cost overruns could bust bond budget

The former Leonard Sixth Grade Center will be the site of the STEM Academy for students interested in science, technology, engineering and math.
The former Leonard Sixth Grade Center will be the site of the STEM Academy for students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. Star-Telegram

School district construction projects worth more than $100 million are at “high risk” of going over budget because of cost overruns, according to an analysis by district architects and program managers.

The bond projects were approved by voters in 2013, and some — including two new replacement elementary schools, at a cost of $12 million to $18 million each, and $13 million in upgrades to field houses at every high school campus — are expected to exceed budget projections. Cost overruns also are expected to affect construction of the district’s two showcase academies — the Visual and Performing Arts Center and the STEM Academy for students bent on careers in math and science.

Many of the budget-busting costs are expected to result from “unknown conditions” that may require additional work, such as asbestos cleanup at field houses and buildings that must be renovated, said Wayne Warren of AECOM Inc., the Los Angeles-based program management firm that was hired by the district to oversee construction.

“When we start talking about renovations, you’re getting into concealed areas,” Warren told a citizens advisory committee in December. “You don’t know what’s behind the wall. So you have a potential for a cost impact there to projections that weren’t contemplated in budgeting of those projects.”

Construction of the new elementary schools is expected to cost more because of problematic site conditions, Warren said.

Only a handful of projects, including cafeteria upgrades at schools and new classrooms for pre-kindergarten students, appeared in the “moderate” to “low” risk category.

Over the summer, a citizens bond oversight committee was established to make recommendations to the board regarding the cost and scope of the $490 million bond. Faced with escalating budget projections, committee Chairman Isaac Manning directed school officials to develop the “at-risk” analysis.

“I think it’s really helpful for all of us to see where the issues might lie and where we need to be focused on,” Manning told committee members at a Dec. 15 meeting.

Trustees are expected to review the “at-risk” analysis at Tuesday’s board meeting.

The board is also expected to approve using $10.5 million from the district’s internal service fund to install artificial surfaces at 11 high school practice fields. Arlington Heights and Paschal already have artificial turf fields.

Another agenda item deals with the future site of the planned Visual and Performing Arts Center.

Last month, 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. The building now houses Mid Level Learning Center, one of the district’s alternative schools.

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 interim Superintendent Pat Linares’ recommendation to house the school in the Cultural District on district-owned land near Farrington Field. But other board members, including Tobi Jackson and Judy Needham, have expressed a desire to research the option of selling or leasing the property to improve the district’s bottom line.

Another site being considered is the former I.M. Terrell High School, which was the city’s first public education institution for African-Americans. Terrell now houses an elementary school and the district’s technology division. Trustee T.A. Sims favors that site.

Fort Worth is attempting to get a handle on escalating construction costs under the bond program. Linares has recommended $43 million in potential cuts and savings, which 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 at some schools.

Vicki Burris, the district’s chief officer for capital projects administration, has said that almost every project in the 2013 referendum was based on a square-footage cost far below the market value. 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.

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.

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705

Twitter: @yberard

If you go

The Fort Worth school district Board of Trustees will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the district’s board room, 2903 Shotts St. in Fort Worth.

Among the items being discussed are “ at-risk” bond projects because of construction costs, including:

High-risk

▪ New school construction at Washington Heights ($10 million-12 million) and Westpark ($18 million) elementaries

▪ STEM and Visual and Performing Arts Academy ($73.3 million)

▪ Field house renovations at district high schools ($13 million or $1 million for each high school)

Moderate risk

▪ Kitchen and cafeteria expansions at more than 25 schools ($54 million)

Low risk

▪ Pre-kindergarten classroom additions at more than a dozen schools ($19 million)

Source: Fort Worth school district

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