By Jeff Keeling
It may be “just” $600,000, but it’s a very important $600,000.
When they meet Jan. 25, Washington County Commissioners will consider a budget committee recommendation that they fund a small portion of the total cost for a new K-8 school for the Boones Creek school zone. Budget committee members Jan. 13 unanimously approved a proposed resolution for the money, which would fund the early stages of design and engineering for the long-discussed project.
The recommendation came from the Health, Education and Welfare committee after its members met with the school board about school construction and renovation projects. That HEW meeting also produced a recommendation to pursue renovation of Jonesborough Elementary School, as opposed to construction of a new K-8 to replace Jonesborough’s elementary and middle schools.
Architect Tony Street told budget committee members the $600,000 would allow the school board and county – as owners and funders of a project currently estimated at $30 million – to work toward selecting a contractor through a process different than the previous standard. Closer to a “design-build” type of concept, the process also would give commissioners more accurate “hard numbers” at an earlier stage of the project than usual – and allow for fine-tuning of the design and the costs throughout the project that would replace both Boones Creek Elementary and the aging Boones Creek Middle School, Street said.
In a departure from the traditional bid process, Street said, the schools could issue a request for proposals from contractors, then use an objective process to “short list” that group down to three to five. Street’s firm will then complete plans representing about 40 percent of the completed project, and submit those to the eligible contractors.
“They take those plans and develop costs, and from those costs that factors in to the final score of those three to five contractors,” Street said.
The total estimated cost for the school’s engineering and design phase is $1.2 million. After discussing the altered construction approach, though, Street, school representatives and the HEW committee agreed on starting with the $600,000 worth of work.
Based on eligible contractors’ submissions after they see the plans, and available funding for construction, a contractor would be selected.
“It really goes a long way towards finally giving us as designers and owners a little bit more say-so about who does the work,” Street said. “They’re evaluated on experience, on who they’re going to staff the job with, who their job superintendent’s going to be, what kind of financials they have. There’s a whole list of things that they’re evaluated on – so I just see it as an opportunity to deliver a better product.”
The City of Johnson City has begun to use a similar process with its construction projects. Mayor Dan Eldridge, who is one of the five budget committee members, echoed Street regarding the benefits of fine-tuning the design and cost, and getting some early specifics on cost.
“I think everybody understands the roughly $30 million number that’s been used to this point has really just been used for planning,” Eldridge said of previous discussions about a new school. “It’s certainly not a budget number. This will allow hard numbers to be developed and the county commission ultimately to make a decision to fund or not to fund based on real numbers.”
County Commissioner Katie Baker, who chairs the HEW, said a meeting with the school board in mid-December helped clear up some previous miscommunication about the Boones Creek project.
“Now we know that this is what the school board wanted. We know that renovations cost $14 to $15 million and only extend the life of those schools up to 10 years, whereas with this investment, we could have a school for 60 years. So I feel like this request has been thoroughly vetted at this point.”
A previously selected site for the new school is off the table now, but Director of Schools Ron Dykes said he and Street have narrowed a search down to three prospective sites. They’ll try to determine those sites’ feasibility – including likely infrastructure costs – within 45 days.
The Jonesborough question
While talk of a new school for Jonesborough circulated last summer, Baker said talks with the school board resulted in a pullback from that.
“You’ll see estimates for those renovations included in this plan (a submitted schools’ capital improvement plan) in the years 2017-2018 and 2018-2019,” Baker said. Those projected costs total $8.7 million, with $4 million being spent the first year and $4.7 million the second.
That statement led to a discussion about moving up in time a traffic flow component of those renovations, but also to some questions about whether it might still be better to build new rather than renovate in Jonesborough, as well. Congestion occurs around the school, which is on busy Highway 11-E, and Street explained a roughly $300,000 project – part of the $8.7 million in renovations – that could alleviate some of that.
Commissioner Todd Hensley of the budget committee said he understood the importance of the traffic problem. On the other hand, he said, “I’m not sure I’m on board with just renovating schools that are getting toward the end of a useful life.”
Fellow committee member Rick Storey agreed. “I can stomach $300,000, but if we put in several million dollars more and then decide we’re doing a new school in five years, that would be another matter.”
In the end, the committee passed a motion asking the school board and Street to develop a specific estimate for the traffic circulation component and route it through the HEW committee and back to budget.