By Oliver Lazenby
Crews will break ground this summer on a $38 million Blaine High School remodel, but it’s not quite what citizens voted on last February when they passed a $45 million bond to fund the project along with some other school district work.
Bids on the project came in well over budget, so to keep the project in reach, the Blaine school district board of directors has voted to drop plans to replace grandstands that were originally part of the project. It would cost $3.4–4.2 million to keep them in the project. The decision, made unanimously at a June 8 special meeting, will push back grandstand construction for at least three years.
Spee West Construction of Bothell won the contract with a bid of $29.75 million and will break ground at the high school this summer.
The decision was made in a boardroom packed with high school football players, parents and other fans of Blaine athletics. Meeting attendees pointed out that the grandstands were presented as part of the bond, which voters passed by 70 percent last February.
“Voters got this phenomenal colored brochure with the grandstand included in the items that we were going to build for our children, and now it’s completely on the back burner?” Angela Abshere asked at the meeting.
Others expressed similar opinions. Several of the 20-plus football players in attendance said they would feel cheated if they voted on a bond and the construction didn’t include all the promised projects.
“While we certainly understand the frustration and we feel it as well, the consequence of waiting longer is that all of this is going to cost even more,” district superintendent Ron Spanjer told the audience. “We do not want to be building an inferior facility that staff and the community are going to have to live with for generations. That’s the delicate balance in this.”
Spanjer recommended that the board award the lowest bid and delay the grandstand project because the other option – redesigning the high school to pull out money for grandstands – would delay the whole project and likely make it more expensive.
Any redesign would set the project back at least a year, since utilities will be turned off for weeks in the first phase of construction, Spanjer said, and that can’t be done during the school year.
The district had budgeted $38 million of the $45 million bond money for work on the high school, including construction of a concrete grandstand.
The high school remodel will result in a facility that is all under one roof. The high school currently has 46 separate entrances, making it difficult to secure, Spanjer said. The remodeled building will have just three entrances.
Other elements of the high school remodel include updates to antiquated heating, cooling and ventilation systems, band and choir space (students currently go to the middle school for band and choir) a cafeteria, cameras, electronic doors, and specialized classrooms for horticulture, construction skills classes and other career and technical education programs.
The district budgeted $25.8 million for construction on the core high school facility and $2.6 million for grandstand construction, for a total of $28.4 million. The rest of the $38 million is for non-construction costs such as architectural and design fees, sales tax, permitting, project management, landscaping, equipment and furnishings.
Spee West bid $34 million for the high school and grandstand construction, about 20 percent more than the district budgeted.
“It was disappointing, certainly, because we know that puts us in a position of having to modify or adjust the product,” Spanjer said in an interview. “It’s very disappointing.”
Spee West’s bid to build just the core high school facility with no grandstand for $29.75 million, the lowest of four bids, slightly exceeded the district’s budget.
“I don’t want to prioritize one over the other but we need to get going on this educational facility and that’s the bottom line,” Spanjer said.
About $2.1 million in the budget is set aside as contingency money and will be put toward the grandstand or other projects originally in the bond proposal if it’s still available after construction. If no money is left over, the district will have to find another way to fund the grandstands.
“Absent the contingency money there’s no funding in this budget for the stadium,” project manager Jim Kenoyer said at the board meeting.
The board could also consider cheaper options for replacing the grandstand. The current plan calls for a concrete structure that Kenoyer said would be the best in the county, other than Civic Field in Bellingham.
School district officials anticipated that, due to market conditions, bids would come in over budget. So in the weeks before putting it out to bid they cut certain specifications to the plans, Spanjer said.
They tweaked the school’s roof profiles, exterior coverings, heating and air-conditioning systems and other elements that saved nearly $4 million in construction costs, Spanjer said.
Making more alterations to the core facility would require a redesign.
“We would be into design changes at this point – floor plan changes, size of classrooms, downsizing common areas like the cafeteria, maybe eliminating something like a theatre,” Spanjer said. “We don’t want to put this back out to bid only to get a higher price for a lesser product and put ourselves in the position of not having the money to do the core facility.”
Redesign would come with its own costs, in addition to the higher prices that will likely result from waiting longer, Spanjer said.
Multiple school construction projects are in the works in the county, including several in the Nooksack Valley and Bellingham school districts.
That’s one reason that bids on the project were higher than the district estimated, Kenoyer said. Another is that all four firms that bid on the project use the same subcontractors for mechanical, plumbing and electrical work, so there’s no cost competition in that aspect of the project, he said.
“The inclination to get that pencil really sharp just isn’t there,” Kenoyer said.
New building codes also drove up high school expenses in the past year.
One example, Kenoyer said, is that since the district budgeted the project the number of toilets required in a building the size of the high school has more than doubled.
“There now have to be 38 toilets rather than 16,” he said. That’s just one example, and if the project stalls for a year there could be more new codes to contend with, Kenoyer said.
The original estimates for the high school project and grandstand were derived by the architect and from dollar-per-square-foot figures from the state superintendent’s office. It’s a formula that worked for the primary school project, which is nearly complete and came in $2 million under budget.
“We felt really good about the formula. It worked really well for us at the primary school,” Spanjer said. “The dynamics of the market have changed considerably in recent months.”
The district has been trying to pass a bond for high school improvements since 2008. Then, the district estimated that the high school project, including work on the stadium, would cost $28 million. That bond failed to pass.
“That gives you some idea of how the cost variables have increased in an 8-year period. It went from $28 to $38 million with no significant differences in the project,” Spanjer said.
In 2011, the district proposed a scaled-back bond that would have raised $32 million for just the core high school facility rebuild with no grandstands. That bond election received just under the 60 percent of votes it needed to pass.
A committee proposed a $3 million bond for 2012 with only the most critical project – the science building, a few security updates and ventilation work. That bond passed.
The $45 million bond may have passed in 2015 because, by some measures, the economy was recovering. But, since that’s the case throughout the county, other districts also began working on big capital projects and there’s work to go around for contractors equipped to do those projects, Spanjer said.
“It’s kind of like going from zero to 60,” Spanjer said. “Bonds aren’t passing and projects aren’t in play and then all the sudden there’s a number of them in the county.”
Spanjer summed up the board’s options before the vote: it could award the contract without a new grandstand, or decide to go back and redesign the facility, which would take months, push back the project a year, and come with the risk of getting less high school facility for a higher cost, he said.
“Angela’s absolutely right – we made a commitment to voters and we need to make every effort to get a grandstand in place there, but there are some risks involved in starting over that could significantly compromise what we have,” Spanjer said.
While not all sports fans were pleased with the outcome, Abshere said she came away from the meeting feeling like the board did care about the grandstand.
“After speaking with the individual board members I feel that they’re as passionate as I am that it is going to happen,” she said. “It’s just going to take a little longer.”