By Tyler Murphy
BETHLEHEM — The Bethlehem School Board heard revised estimates for a potential facilities improvement project last week, raising the predicted costs from about $15 to $26.6 million.
The project will repair several buildings in the district, upgrade technology infrastructure and athletic facilities, with some options including the construction of the district’s first synthetic turf field.
At a Nov. 7 meeting, the board had discussed project costs ranging from about $12 to $15 million.
“I think we’re all a little bit shell shocked right now, in terms of numbers we’re seeing,” said board member Michael Cooper at the end of the Nov. 28 presentation.
He, along with the rest of the board, came to a consensus at last week’s meeting that the district requires at least some kind of bonded project to keep up with needed building repairs but members did not define how much.
“We can’t continue to keep delaying maintenance on buildings because we’re going to run into some real problems,” Cooper said.
“We need to address some of these issues,” said board member Lynne Lenhardt. “I agree with the shellshock, 25 million is extreme.”
The project would spend approximately $3.9 million at the Bethlehem High School, $3.5 million at the Bethlehem Middle School, $1.6 million at Slingerland Elementary, $1.4 million at Glenmont Elementary, a million at Elsmere Elementary, half a million at Hamagrael, $300,000 at Eagle Elementary and $78,000 at Clarksville Elementary.
The board is working on a bond project that may become a referendum for residents to vote on in the spring. The project is a list of improvements at several different buildings in the district and includes roof, floor, window and wall repairs, heat and water utility upgrades and installing internal and external security camera systems.
Board member Laura Bierman, asking about reducing expenses, requested architects to separate the costs of installing internal security cameras, to record students during the regular school day, from the rest of the project.
She supported a bonded project but asked about incorporating more items into schools’ operating budgets.
“Our schools are falling apart in some places,” she said.
“We need to take care of our buildings, students and staff,” added board member Charmaine Wijeyesinghe.
In total, the board estimated about $15.2 million is needed just for the building improvements, which also includes $1,355,100 in technology upgrades.
Superintendent Thomas Douglas, who accepted the job in January, said many of the needed improvements had been deferred in previous years due to fiscal constraints and the district was now trying to address several escalating maintenance issues at once.
“Sooner or later, we’ll have to address it,” Douglas told The Enterprise saying some of the repairs were too expensive to be funded in the annual operating budget.
“We don’t want to get into defer, defer, defer; we need to have some well maintained operating budgets and staff and protocol so we don’t have to wait for every single bond to get this done,” District Operations and Maintenance Director Gregg Nolte told the board.
Douglas said the only other option was inefficient and would mean creating several smaller bond projects to address the problems over time. By putting the projects into a single proposal, Douglas said, the district could receive state aid for repairs not usually covered. He estimated that nearly 70 percent of the improvement projects could be paid for by the state.
Assuming the school receives the full amount of aid for a $25 million project a resident owning a $250,000 home would see a $60 increase in his annual school taxes, for the life of the 20-year bond.
Douglas said the school should stop referring so many projects in the future in order to avoid more funding congestion. “We’re looking at how we’re going to start addressing these regularly,” he said, referring to the building improvements.
Another part of the project calls on the board to select one of four possible plans ranging from $1.6 million, to resurface the existing grass game field, to spending up to $4.3 million to upgrade the field to synthetic turf and expanding the surrounding runners’ track.
Representatives from the district’s new architectural firm, Ashley McGraw, hired Nov. 7 by the board, told members at the Nov. 28 meeting that the original calculations for the project were based on a five-year capital facilities plan finalized in 2011.
Architect Dan Heukrath said the initial 2010 figures did not take into account all the potential “soft costs,” new building regulations, or inflation for project costs, the company predicts ground could be broken in 2014.
He estimated that additional “soft costs,” including legal fees, design contingency expenses, and other unforeseen costs, at about $3.8 million.
One notable factor in the rising costs, Heukrath said, is a new building regulation that might require the school to use reinforced steel when working on the buildings’ roofs, which helps brace the structure against accumulating snow and ice.
As an example of soft costs, Heukrath asked what if crews preparing a floor for repairs might discover the walls or ceiling were also in poor condition.
“A good question to ask: ‘Is that all you’re going to do or are you going to fix the whole room?’” he said.
Other “soft costs” include architectural and engineering services, construction administration, soil testing, surveys, site monitoring, furnishings and fixtures and legal fees.
The district’s former architect firm, CS Arch, developed the state mandated five-year plan in 2010. The firm was the same company hired to complete a voter-approved $93 million improvement project in 2003, which included building the Eagle Elementary School.
The remaining debt totals $73,455,00, according to the district’s website.
The district had also predicted up to 70 percent of that project would be covered by aid but actually received 62 percent when the final tabulations were concluded.
Bethlehem Spokesman Bill DeVoe said the decision to hire a new architectural firm was not meant to imply any discontentment with CS Arch’s past work. “The board has to choose the architect that best serves the district,” he said.
The superintendent acknowledged there is still community apprehension in the wake of the controversial yet voter-approved $93 million bond project.
Douglas told The Enterprise he was not part of the district when previous decisions were made and was focusing on moving forward.
“As a district, you try to learn from your past and do a better job next time; you have to do that,” he said. Douglas said a bonded improvement project was a good first step in putting the district in a better position.
This year, Bethlehem has an $88.2 million budget, which represented a 3.99 percent tax levy increase over last year, drawing ire from some residents who thought a New York law passed earlier this year restricted schools to a 2 percent cap.
The law allows for a supermajority or 60 percent of the voters, to override the law, which is how the district passed its current budget.
The district increased annual spending in the budget by 1.58 percent. DeVoe said the school cut $3.3 million dollars last year before adopting the final budget and more cuts are expected.
In its presentation last week, Ashley McGraw, estimated the board could make a decision on the scope of the plan by the end of the year with a project being presented to the public for review. A public hearing could be scheduled for January or February with a referendum vote in March at the earliest.
The next board of education meeting will take place on Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. in the Bethlehem High School library.