Opinion

Wilkes costs are high– jusifiably

Over the last three months I conducted a detailed review of the estimated costs for the proposed rebuild of Wilkes Elementary.

I wanted to know how these estimated costs compared to other recently built schools around the sound. What should a new Wilkes cost?

This has proven to be a difficult question to answer for two reasons.

First, this school is not yet designed. While the district has developed design guidelines, it requires the skills of an architect and professional cost estimators to convert these guidelines into a construction budget.

Second, it is quite difficult to find actual total cost data for comparable schools. While opening bid data comparables are readily available, there is no publically available source of aggregated actual soft costs.

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) reports some soft costs, but only as necessary to support the underfunded state construction assistance program. OSPI does not recommend using its cost reports as benchmarks.

The only way to gather actual total cost data is directly from each individual school district.

After spending many hours speaking with architects, estimators, builders, construction management companies, school and OSPI representatives, I concluded that cost estimators provide the most reliable comparable data available.

The graph below compares total estimated project costs for Wilkes to total estimated project costs of comparable Puget Sound-area schools.

All figures are based upon data provided by professional cost estimators, as presented to the school board before its vote in August to place this measure on the ballot.

Schools shown on this graph were identified by the school district and its architects and estimators to have design goals similar to those expressed in the BISD capital facilities master plan.

They do not all have the same features, but they are all schools with high-quality construction standards and the associated costs.

Total project costs for Wilkes are estimated to be $73 per square foot higher than the average of the comparables, partially because estimated site development costs are $37 per square foot higher than the average of the comparables.

Wilkes’ higher site development costs are driven by septic requirements, storm-water management regulations, and relocated play fields.

Wilkes’ estimate also includes “green” design elements, such as alternative energies, rain gardens and green roofs, which account for $62 per square foot of the total estimate. Building “green” adds cost, but reflects a widely held community value of environmental responsibility.

The estimated size of the new Wilkes school is 63,000 square feet, within 1 percent of the comparables average, and will accommodate 450 students. This represents a 94 percent capacity utilization rate, compared to 85 percent for the average of the comparables.

Soft costs, estimated to be 35 percent of total project costs, were discussed at length by a citizen construction review panel comprised of local architects, builders and community members.

Consensus among the members was that soft cost estimates may be marginally high, but given the pre-design stage of the project and the uncertain economic environment they should not be changed.

My efforts to validate cost estimates with actual cost reports are ongoing. Shortly after the school board vote, I received actual cost reports for both Midway and Shorewood.

These reports indicate the estimate for Midway is 4 percent higher than actual cost, and that the estimate for Shorewood is 8 percent lower than actual cost.

BISD sets high standards for new construction, which is reflected in the estimated costs.

Design goals such as improved natural lighting and ventilation add cost, but also provide health and educational benefits, as well as operational savings over the life of the building.

Personally, I am satisfied that the estimated hard costs to rebuild Wilkes are reasonable, given the district’s building goals and the challenging site conditions.

The estimated soft costs may be somewhat high, raising total estimated project costs by as much as 5 percent to 6 percent.

However, these are very early estimates, and I believe this to be an acceptable margin of error.

The Wilkes project is on the upper end of the cost continuum, but I believe the district should set high standards, build green, and provide children a quality learning environment.

Not everyone shares my values – all voters need to make their own decisions. All I ask is that voters make an informed decision based on verifiable information, not on unsubstantiated sound bites.

John Brown is a Bainbridge resident and president of the Brown Family Private Foundation. With a background in finance, he

has served on the BISD budget committees for the last four budget cycles, but is not affiliated with the district in any other way.

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