School levy is contrary to economic realities | Guest Column | David Larimore

Over the past weeks I have become increasingly dismayed and disappointed by the school board’s latest campaign to pass their $42 million school bond issue. Instead of modifying their proposal to address the concerns of the voters that led to last May’s defeat, the board simply reviewed its earlier proposal and resubmitted it unchanged.

This is a slap in the face of the electorate, basically saying its concerns aren’t worthy of serious consideration.

Under normal circumstances this bond issue, like almost all BISD bond issues, would have passed handily. But this time I saw surprising opposition from friends who ordinarily vote “yes” on any school bond. Their opposition is still there, augmented now by anger over the decision to resubmit bond issue unchanged.

The basis for this opposition? Simply put: timing and cost. Why does Wilkes School have to be replaced right now and why does this replacement school cost so much? These are questions that have not been satisfactorily answered.

Although it’s clear that Wilkes has some significant maintenance problems that need addressing, it’s less clear why these problems can’t either be deferred awhile longer or dealt with on an interim basis by spending only enough money to get by until the economic climate improves.

In the current recession it isn’t unreasonable to expect the school district to do what all the rest of us are doing; i.e., reducing spending, putting off major expenditures, making do with less.

Regardless of whether or not the Wilkes replacement can be deferred, the school board needs to address the $32.5 million price tag for the new school. The board has had the estimate reviewed and supposedly validated, although details of this review have not been made public. If the Wilkes cost estimate itself is indeed correct then the BISD needs to seriously reconsider the scope of the replacement school’s design.

In its 2005 Facilities Master Plan, the school district carefully defined its long-term needs in a systematic and professional manner, with valuable input from educators and the community. The plan’s upshot was a detailed definition and scope for a new – and no doubt idealized –Wilkes School.

Before this bond issue is approved by the voters, this scope should be critically reviewed to see what cost reductions are possible, even if the resulting facility is somewhat less ideal than originally envisioned. Again, in times like these we all make do with less.

Based on the limited information available on the details of the estimate, there are several obvious opportunities to significantly reduce the project cost. A more detailed review would no doubt uncover others.

The “soft cost” portion of the estimate includes $1.4 million for “furnishings and equipment.” While such an expenditure may be necessary for a new grassroots school, in this case Wilkes’s existing furnishings could simply be relocated to the new building.

The Master Plan shows two alternative designs for elementary schools: a building with a dedicated cafeteria/commons area and one with a multi-purpose room combining the cafeteria/commons and the gymnasium. Both cases were estimated in 2005, and the cafeteria/commons option was included in the bond issue. This option is $1.2 million more expensive (2005 dollars). Is this expenditure really necessary?

The estimate includes a line item for a 2,000-square-foot “covered play structure” costing almost $300,000. This amount seems excessive for a “covered play structure” – that’s enough money to build a pretty nice house. More basically, why is a new “covered play structure” needed at all? The existing Wilkes School has an outdoor play area that seems perfectly adequate.

Comparing the 2005 and 2009 estimates, there seems to be a significant increase in costs due to the inclusion of some unspecified “green” design features. While at least some of these are no doubt desirable from an environmental and/or an economic standpoint, they should be critically reviewed to weed out the more speculative and least cost-effective features.

A “no” vote at this time will give the school board the opportunity to go back and give some serious thought to the scope of the new school and to bring it in line with current economic realities.

David Larimore is a retired engineering with a career in the chemical process and environmental services industries. He has been a Bainbridge resident for 20 years.

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