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Council's Turn to Speak on T.C. Question

Who pays?" Still the question.

Two weeks ago, parents spoke out about the rising cost of the T. C. Williams High School construction project. On Tuesday night, members of City Council had an opportunity to express their own concerns.

“I have a great deal of concern that this project will be completed on time and on budget, which seems to be an ever moving target,” said Councilman Andrew Macdonald. “I do not have confidence that this project is being managed properly. I am not even certain that this is the right site on which to build a new high school.. Perhaps we should look for land some place else in the city such as Potomac Yard and start over. It might be a better way to go about this project and it might cost less.”

The School Board presented the latest funding proposal and the contract that they voted to award to Hensel-Phelps last week. The current price tag for the school is $98.9 million. That includes a guaranteed maximum price for hard construction costs of around $88.5 million and furniture, fixtures and equipment costs of $10.3 million. The city will provide $80.5 million; $10 million will come from the education reserve fund for the next four years. and $8.4 million will be obtained by deferring the Minnie Howard renovation project. Any additional funds must come from already approved school system capital projects.

“WE HAVE CONFIDENCE that this contractor can complete this project on time and on budget,” said Mark Burke, the school system’s project manager. “The value engineering process that we have just completed has identified places where there were flaws in the drawings and places where costs could be cut. This process certainly makes it more likely that we will complete this project at this cost.”

The School Board awarded the T. C. Williams construction contract under a relatively new law in Virginia, known as the Public Private Education and Facilities Act. This allowed the school system to select a contractor not based on the lowest bid but based on negotiations and some mutual assumption of risks in the project. For the past 90 days, Hensel-Phelps has conducted value engineering studies, which have led to cutting around $3 million from the project cost.

“These changes have been discussed with city staff,” said Mark Jinks, the deputy city manager for finance. “Some of the things that were suggested were not approved, such as some changes to the architecture of the building. The neighbors expect to see a certain type of exterior and we were not willing to change that.

“However, there were areas on which there was agreement. We found that the lighting in the parking garage is sufficient to allow the school system not to paint the garage interior white. Also, we have relocated a storm drain which was going to cost a large amount of money because it was planned to snake all around the new school. By placing it in a different location, we have saved about $600,000,” Jinks said.

None of the changes require the schools to go back through the planning process because all fall within the Special Use Permit approval already issued. This value engineering process limits but does not eliminate the risk that there will be cost increases.

“THIS GUARANTEED MAXIMUM price does not include unforeseen soil conditions, for example, does it?,” asked Councilman Paul Smedberg.

Burke replied that it does not. “We think that we know most of the conditions on that site because of borings that we took this summer and last,” he said, “however, once we start sinking pillars for the foundation, there are no guarantees."

Unforeseen site conditions caused months of delay and cost overruns during the construction of George Washington Middle School.

The guaranteed maximum price also does not include certain change orders. “What it does is require that those changes be negotiated,” Jinks said. “However, if the school system decides to change the design of the interior, that would fall outside the guaranteed maximum price and would cost more.”

As the education plan for the new high school unfolds, redesigning the interior could be required, according to several school architects. The School Board just approved the curriculum committee to begin work on that education design with a goal of getting parental and public input some time in the spring, after work has begun. The school system has built a five percent contingency fund into the guaranteed maximum price to cover all unforeseen circumstances.

“I am concerned that we have a budget that is so close to the edge on this project,” said School Board member Kenneth Foran. “The risks of unforeseen circumstances both at the high school and in our elementary schools is something that we should not dismiss. We will monitor this project closely.”

So will the city. A city Code Enforcement department staff member will be on site at T. C. throughout the construction project in case of issues that might arise. Transportation and Environmental staff will be available as needed. Also, the T. C. Williams task force, made up of the mayor, vice mayor, School Board chair and vice chair and city and school staff, will receive monthly updates.

“I share my colleagues’ concerns and the concerns of many Alexandrians about the rising cost of this project,” said Mayor William D. Euille. “We will monitor this project carefully and get regular reports to ensure that there are no surprises.”

Site work will begin in earnest in December.