There may be some cost savings found here and there, but the new elementary school planned for Westover will still end up costing significantly more than the $49 million originally projected.
School Board members on Sept. 19 are slated to consider and vote on a budget of $55 million for the 725-student school, to rise adjacent to the Westover branch library on the site now occupied by the school system’s Reed School building.
Construction costs are expected to take up $42.6 million of the budget, with “soft” costs (management and contingency) accounting for the rest.
The overall budget is 12 percent higher than originally projected, although the architectural firm overseeing the plan says upwards of $500,000 in savings could be squeezed from the $55 million budget, either to be used for additional amenities or put back into the school system’s capital fund.
Perhaps anticipating flak from fiscal hawks on the cost issue, School Board member Barbara Kanninen took pains to repeat conclusions reached in a recent audit of construction projects, which suggested that Arlington’s higher school costs were due, in part, to the county using the buildings for multiple purposes.
“Our projects generally provide community amenities in addition to just being a school,” Kanninen said.
The question of cost has been overshadowed by concerns about the site being denuded of its mature trees. Residents living around the North McKinley Road parcel have complained about current tree-removal plans, and about what they see as high-handed treatment by school officials and the design team in recent months.
That design team earlier held an on-site meeting with neighbors, and is planning a follow-up on Sept. 16 at 6:30 p.m.
“This is our effort to be responsive to the community’s concerns and comments,” said Ben Bergin, assistant director of design/construction for VMDO Architects, which is overseeing the project for the school system.
School-system leaders say they will be planting 82 replacement trees on the site, far more than the 49 required by the county government, and are working to try and save some that were slated for removal, including a 54-inch silver maple.
While fiscal watchdogs in Arlington are few and relatively docile, tree advocates are growing in number and not afraid to make noise. Perhaps as a result, School Board member Reid Goldstein said he was happy the design team would “go back over the landscaping plan, the tree plan” on Sept. 16.
It was a comment echoed by the School Board’s vice chairman, Monique O’Grady.
“I understand why [neighbors are] concerned about the trees,” said O’Grady, who is the School Board liaison to the building-level planning committee for the project. “I’m very happy . . . we’re going to have a conversation.”
But School Board members stopped short of saying they would entertain any consideration of slowing down the construction timetable to mull over ways to save more trees. Construction is slated to start in late September, with the building planned for occupancy at the start of the 2021-22 school year.
To start in late September “is really critical for us,” Bergin said, in order to get work going before the onset of winter.
“Even a delay by a few days could impact the overall schedule by weeks,” he said.
Any significant alterations to the design would likely “cause conflicts we can’t predict,” said Bergin.
(VMDO has worked with the school system on a number of recent capital projects, including the now-opened Alice West Fleet Elementary School and The Heights, home to H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program.)
Reading the tea leaves of the Sept. 5 board meeting, it appears likely that School Board members are ready to keep the timetable moving forward even if it means not every doomed tree gets considered for a reprieve from the axe-man.
“In the end, the design is a great design,” said O’Grady, acknowledging that “there are a lot of tradeoffs” among competing interests in shepherding a school from concept to completion.
After almost a decade of fiscal restraint (at least by Arlington’s standards) following the economic meltdown, school-construction projects again appear to be creeping up in costs.
That “mission creep” was one source of tension between Superintendent Patrick Murphy, who supported strict budgeting to have funds available down the road, and a number of School Board members, who didn’t balk at rising costs.
Murphy ultimately threw in the towel, departing in early September for a new post in West Virginia.