June 17, 2014

School board faces tough choices on new high school

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

With prices now coming in $6 million more than was initially budgeted for the building of Watford City’s new high school, McKenzie County School District No. 1 School Board members are faced with some very hard choices. And what those cuts could mean were the subject of a special school board meeting on Wednesday, March 18, as board members were tasked with keeping to their $50 million budget.
“The costs are coming in higher than expected,” stated Doug Larson of JLG Architects, the firm that is overseeing the new school construction project. “We’re trying to stay on budget. But there are going to be some hard decisions to be made.”
According to Dave Lenss of Krause-Anderson, the construction manager, the site for the new high school will have to have two holding ponds to handle rainfall drainage. In addition, the site preparation for the new school is going to be more expensive than was anticipated. All told, the increased site costs were $2.5 million above budget, while the actual school building’s costs came in $3.5 million more than initially estimated.
So faced with a fixed budget of $50 million to build the new school, the board began the heart-breaking task of deciding what would no longer be a part of the project.
The first item to be slashed from the proposed project was the football field, track and stadium complex, which saved the district just under $2.3 million.
“Deep down, everyone knew that if anything had to go first, it would be the football field, track and stadium,” states Steve Holen, district superintendent. “Our goal now is to make sure that we can have the facility that the people want. But that could mean that portions of the building will not be completed as part of this construction.”
While Holen acknowledged that the new athletic complex was the first obvious item that could be eliminated from the building plans, coming up with $3½ million more in savings was an agonizing process for the board.
 “This isn’t what the people of the school district voted for,” stated Nikki Johnsrud, as one after one of the components of the new high school was taken off the table.
Not only was the athletic field gone, but so was the $700,000 in the budget for theater equipment in the new auditorium. Gone was some of the seating in the gymnasium, a greenhouse for the Vocational Education Department, and a long line of other changes to the building.
Even the overall size of the new high school was reduced from 161,500 to possibly 157,000 square feet to save money.
But the board and Holen were adamant that they didn’t want to reduce the size of the building when it came to the number of classrooms or the school’s 800 student capacity.
According to Lenss, one of the options to save money would be to reduce the size of the gymnasium, but he urged the board not to do that.
“I think that we can be within budget without reducing the size of the gym,” stated Lenss. “Gym space is cheap, and once it’s gone, you can never get it back.”
However, he did suggest that the board could save $172,000 by reducing the number of bleachers in the gymnasium.
“You can always add those bleachers back late into the project if we can find more money,” stated Lenss. “I would urge you to look at that option.”
Lenss also suggested that the district could shave another $652,000 in cost, by only shelling eight areas of classroom space and then finishing them at a later date.
“We’re $6 million over budget,” stated Holen. “With the $3.3 million in deducts, the reality is everything can be an alternate. The hard choice is the gym and the theater. And we still have to find another $1 million in cuts.”
According to Holen, the cost of building in the state’s oil patch is the main reason for the increased building costs.
“The square foot construction cost of the school went from $221 to $245 in just four months,” states Holen.
But even as the school board wrestles with holding the cost of the new school to its $50 million budget, Holen is still holding out hope that some of the items taken off the table last week can be part of the finished building.
“Obviously, we’re hoping that when the bids come in they will be lower and we can add back some of the items,” states Holen.
And, according to Holen, there is a possibility that when the State Legislature convenes in January, some additional financing programs for the school district may be made available.
Bids on the mass grading portion of the new high school site will be opened on July 2, with a ground- breaking to be held to coincide with the dirt moving. The new school is expected to be completed by January of 2016.
“At the end of the day, we’re not going to lose the functionality of the new school,” states Holen. “We’re going to build the building the people wanted. It just may not be done right away.