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Who Pays For T.C.?

Concerns about funding options affecting other school projects aired.

The Alexandria School Board heard from parents and other city residents about funding the cost over runs on the T.C. Williams High School project. The message was “Don’t touch elementary school capital projects,” and “Where and when will rising costs stop?”

About 15 people spoke, mostly representing elementary school PTAs. The issue was the school system’s need to find $18.4 million in additional funding for construction of the new school. The city approved $80.5 million for the project and the contractor, Hensel-Phelps, is currently engaged in a value engineering process to get to the School Board’s “maximum guaranteed price” of $87.5 million. The board is proposing to take funds from the approved expansion of Minnie Howard and by using the $2.5 million education contingent reserve each year for the next four years.

B.J. Norris spoke on behalf of the PTA Council. “It is fortunate that the funds that had been allotted for the Minnie Howard project, together with the $2.5 million per year contingency fund, can provide the funds required at this point,” she said. “It is unfortunate, however, to find the project so over budget even before ground has been broken. It is not the price itself that is so troubling, as it is the inability to accurately predict the price. The discrepancy between the budgeted amount and the real price tag is far greater than expected in the construction industry even when taking into consideration the increased prices for steel and petroleum products.

“The price of the project is already 25 percent over budget before any dirt has been moved. According to industry professionals and ACPS’s recent experience, once construction starts the ability to control costs is greatly reduced… ‘Guaranteed Maximum Price’ does not mean that the price will not increase. It is, in fact, a starting point. Concealed conditions, inadequacies in the drawings, building code issues and client directed changes are all causes for a ‘GMP’ to be increased by the contractor. Responsible parties within ACPS for this project should not believe, or represent to anyone, that $98 million is all that is currently required to build and equip T.C.,” Norris said.

SOME OF THOSE concealed site conditions could include such things as marine clay as was found at the George Washington Middle School site after construction had begun, delaying the project significantly, and potentially contaminated soil. Two petroleum storage tanks have been removed from the site already.

“It would not be a surprise to find some type of soil contamination,” said Bill Skrabak, the director of the city’s Division of Environmental Quality. “We find soil contamination in most construction sites around the city because this is an urban area.”

Clean up, should soil contamination be found, could add to the cost of the project significantly and would delay completion. There is a condition in the Special Use Permit that requires the contractor to notify the city should any unusual soil conditions be discovered.

If the value engineering process does not result in meeting “Guaranteed Maximum Price” where will the additional funds be found? “We could take the funds from already approved capital projects or ask the city for additional funds,” said John D. “Jay” Johnson, assistant superintendent for financial operations.

PARENTS AT Maury Elementary School are particularly concerned about the potential loss of construction funds. Their renovation project, which is already underway, is $1.5 million over budget. “There is a widespread feeling that Maury is the neglected school in this city, a school that is hit with constant disruptions, upheavals, and mistrust,” said Ann Ipsen, the parent of a child who will enter kindergarten in 2005. “If the Maury renovation is not fully funded, then I believe that neighborhood families will view this as yet another slight against Maury in favor of helping other schools … Neighborhood families want to send their kids to Maury, and a fully funded renovation is a key reason why.”

Lee Quill, a local architect and the parent of a child who attends Lyles-Crouch Elementary School, also expressed concern about not funding elementary school projects. “It is important to consider … that if it appears that additional dollars for T.C. Williams will be needed in the future, that the School Board not reverse itself at some future date, go after the elementary school dollars at that time, and therefore lose all credibility. It would be better to address that potential openly tonight,” Quill said.

Vice chair Mollie Danforth did just that. “Let’s be honest about where those funds would come from,” she said, and asked Johnson to describe potential funding sources, one of which was currently approved capital elementary school projects or asking the city for additional funds.

There were some parents who are pleased with the board’s decision on how to fund T.C. “I am anxious to see the construction at T.C. Williams begin and can’t wait to see it completed,” said Julie Scanlon, T.C. PTSA president. “We have many challenges ahead of us as the construction begins and I look forward to working with you to alleviate, solve and overcome them.”

The board will vote on funding the project on Oct. 7.