Bainbridge schools can’t staunch skyrocketing costs

Construction costs continue to skyrocket despite the school district’s best efforts

Faced with a new elementary school design that they can no longer afford, the Bainbridge Island School Board huddled last week to bring costs back into line with what the district can spend on new projects.

A red hot construction market has pushed costs higher for building projects across the region, and for Bainbridge, it’s being felt most on the school district’s effort to build a new elementary school on the South End.

The estimated cost of a new Captain Johnston Blakely Elementary School — earlier set at $38.9 million — has now skyrocketed to $49.4 million.

That’s much more than officials thought they needed when they went to voters in February 2016 for an $81.2 million capital bond proposal for new school facilities.

Now district officials must decide how to bridge the gap, which led to much hand-wringing at last week’s board meeting about how to build Blakely in a way the public, and students and teachers, can accept.

Attempts by designers to offset cost escalations by utilizing cheaper construction materials and reeling back spendy design elements (a process known as value engineering) have done little to counteract the rapidly rising costs for Blakely’s replacement and a new Bainbridge High School 100 Building.

At last week’s school board meeting, Tamela Van Winkle, the district’s director of capital projects, explained how the current saturation of construction projects have reduced the supply of skilled laborers and materials, driving costs up by an estimated $10.5 million.

“We’re continuing to do value engineering and unfortunately it’s not being reflected. The cost is still going up, even though we’re focusing on reducing the cost,” Van Winkle said.

“Market conditions and escalation is chasing us,” she said, and added that the numbers are still in flux.

Van Winkle also said suggested changes that could have cut back on costs couldn’t gain approval from the city of Bainbridge Island.

“We went to the Design Review Board and they felt that our idea of reusing one of the driveways onsite was not going to be acceptable or safe. They felt that we should move that entrance directly up from Baker Hill,” she said. “That added a significant cost to our project. So our best intentions were not something the city would support.”

Higher costs will mean big changes to the design for the new Blakely. Suggestions to cut costs include fewer skylights (which could save between $85,000 and $94,000); converting the main interior corridor that connects classrooms and administrative offices to an exterior space (which would save between $300,000 and $450,000); removal of the commons (which would save between $675,000 and $930,000); and eliminating a geothermal well field to heat the school (which would save between $350,000 and $410,000).

Van Winkle said that deciding which elements to keep and which to cut was not a new task for her team and that she would continue working with Reese Ande, Blakely’s principal, to decide which design changes would least impact teachers, staff and students.

“This is what we do, we do it constantly. We continue to think about are there ways for us to be more efficient, more cost effective,” Van Winkle said.

Ande said the staff is coming to grips with changes to the school’s design.

“We’re at a point where it’s all about forced choice. None of these choices are ideal,” Ande said.

When faced with the possibility of potentially losing the commons, where students would also gather for lunch instead of eating in their classrooms, Ande remained optimistic.

“I think that we can do it; I think we’ve shown that we can do it. It will decrease flexibility, but I think it’s a conversation we can have.

Board Member Tim Kinkead suggested the district look to see what other school districts, such as the Central Kitsap School District, have done in the past when met with similar cost escalations. School officials need to be mindful of what was promised to voters when they passed the bond to pay for Blakely and other facilities, he said.

“It was a great question that was asked last time about, ‘What did CK do?’ And I think that this gets at this question about Bainbridge and how we do things and the culture of Bainbridge. And so we need that option two. What’s the realistic option two that gets us back into the budget?” he asked.

“We’re not a board that lacks courage to spend money; we’re certainly a board that prefers to focus on student learning,” Kinkead added. “This isn’t a courage question, this is like, what is that option two? It’s not a question about what the board wants, it’s a question about what was approved.”

Board President Sheila Jakubik said that while cost was a big consideration for the board, the community’s use of the buildings should also be considered as well.

Losing a commons at Blakely, Jakubik said, would not only be the loss of a central gathering place for students at the school, but also a loss of a community resource.

“I think these are really important values that we can’t forget, that the legacy that we’re leaving our community is a balancing act between the dollars and what we’re building,” Jakubik said.

“I think sometimes we like to talk about the money so much, we forget about some of those other things that really do have long-term consequences for our community and are hugely important,” she added.

The district will continue their conversation surrounding rising construction costs at the next board meeting planned for Thursday, July 27.

At that meeting, Van Winkle will present a confirmed and reconciled design development cost estimate, as well as a budget alignment strategy.