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Board, superintendent explain latest capital project developments

June 1, 2016 -- During a community meeting attended by some 100 people on May 31, Interim Superintendent Judith Pastel and Board of Education members explained the circumstances that prompted them to temporarily halt plans to begin the district’s $14.8 million capital improvement project.

“It’s extremely important that we communicate with our residents with regard to where we are with our capital project and where we go from here,” Dr. Pastel told the crowd gathered in Groeling Auditorium at Marcellus High School.

When bids for construction work came in significantly higher – more than $2.5 million higher – than the estimates provided by architectural firm SEI Design, the Board of Education had to “hit the pause button” on plans to begin construction later this month, Dr. Pastel said. In coming weeks, they’ll be reviewing the district’s five options, which the interim superintendent outlined during the public meeting.
  1. Reduce the scope of the project.
  2. Keep the project design as is and seek new bids in December and January.
  3. Ask voters to approve more funding.
  4. Use “value engineering” to find places to trim costs.
  5. Cancel the project.
Board members could choose one option or a combination.

Administrators continue to investigate what led to the large gap between the costs estimated by the architect and the contractors’ bids, but they believe at least two factors contributed: a long wait for approval of the plan’s designs and specifications from the New York State Department of Education, due to a backlog of requests and an understaffed planning and facilities division; and an upturn in the economy that led to a high demand for contractors.

Opening the district’s bids on May 19 was “one of the most frustrating and disappointing” moments of her time as superintendent, Dr. Pastel said. But she had to quickly tamp down her annoyance and spring into action. The Board and superintendent met days later with the district’s attorney and quickly scheduled the community meeting.

“We are going to try hard to give you opportunities to be involved,” Dr. Pastel said. “We’ll listen and hear what your concerns are.”

Several residents stepped up to a microphone to ask questions and voice concerns.

Resident Larry Minet asked how much money had been spent on the project so far and if the district has any recourse for recovering that money.

“In the end, who’s responsible?” Mr. Minet asked.

Dr. Pastel said the district has so far paid the architects about $670,000, or about three-quarters of their total fee. No more money will be paid to the firm until shovels hit the dirt, she said, and any redesigns required in the future will be made “on their dime.”

Delaney Moving, which has been assisting the district with packing in preparation for relocating some students and staff during the construction, has agreed to charge Marcellus only for the cost of the moving boxes it provided so far. The clerk of the works trailer will stay where it is in the high school parking lot, because it’s cheaper to pay the $300 monthly rental fee than the $5,000 it would cost to remove it and return it when construction begins. The clerk, who is paid on a per-diem basis, will work only when needed.

Other questions posed during the forum:

Who communicated the district’s building needs to the architect? Can the project be re-evaluated to eliminate “fluff”?
Much of the scope of the work was determined by needs identified by the district’s state-mandated Building Condition Survey. In addition, the facilities committee identified the high school’s outdated science classrooms – which were left out of a previous capital project about 10 years ago ­– as a priority.

“Onondaga Community College told us our facilities were so out of date that they couldn’t possibly offer college-level courses at our school,” Board Vice President John Fuller said. “That was the initial catalyst.”

Is the Building Condition Survey a public document?
Yes, and it’s been posted online here.

Can BOCES fill the gap by providing technology instruction to Marcellus students in its facilities?
“This district, I’m pleased to say, takes very good advantage of specialized course offerings at BOCES,” Dr. Pastel said. “But everything in this project is needed right here for our core curricula.”

The district needs to do a better job of communicating with the students about what’s happening with the capital project.
Although administrators made a point to meet with students in those grades that would be most affected by the planned relocation this past winter, Dr. Pastel agreed that the district should do more now to explain the most recent development to students – and will.

Can the district scale back the scope to focus exclusively on academic spaces and cut out planned improvements to offices?
Administrators will be digging into every option in coming weeks. Board members noted, however, that the changes to the main office and counseling office were made to accommodate a safer, single point of entry to the school and also make room for humanities classrooms.

Is there any way to start earlier than next summer?
No. Overall, the construction costs are 24 percent higher than the money the district has available. Therefore, we cannot accept these bids because we don’t have the money. Given how extensive the planned renovations are, construction must begin in the summer months when the buildings are largely empty. Therefore, once a new plan is agreed upon, next summer will be the soonest construction could begin.

Is anyone being held accountable for the estimates being too low?
“Everyone is being held appropriately accountable,” Dr. Pastel said. For legal reasons, she could not elaborate.

What’s the bottom line? How much additional tax would be required for the owner of a $100,000 home to make up the difference?
As Board members work to review the district’s options, they’ll get closer to having hard numbers to share. Stay tuned to this space for updates.

Is the district still paying to lease the religious education center from St. Francis for district office personnel?
No. As soon as the bids came in too high, the district terminated its lease with the church.

“They’ve been fantastic,” Dr. Pastel said. “The lease is null and void.”
Have more questions?
Please email them to Dr. Pastel at jpastel@marcellusschools.org.
We'll be posting questions and answers here as they come in.


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