Washington-Lee Ready to Undergo Renovations

Washington-Lee Ready to Undergo Renovations

School Board awards construction contract to firm for near market value.

The long-awaited rebuilding of Washington-Lee High School is set to begin in the coming weeks, after the School Board awarded the construction contract to a Maryland firm last week.

THE BOARD granted an $85.45 million contract to Hess Construction Company for the demolition and reconstruction of the high school. The project’s final budget will exceed $99 million, which, besides the Hess contract, includes architectural fees, administrative costs and project management expenses.

Though Hess was one of only two companies to submit a full bid on the project, school officials said they received fair market value for the project. Hess’ estimated budget is less than $400,000 larger than a government assessment of what the project’s cost should be.

“We were really worried that we would have a much higher bid than we did,” School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes said. “The estimator was very close.”

The awarding of the construction contract brings to a close one of the most contentious issues the School Board has seen in recent years.

In 2002 school officials first began discussing plans to renovate the high school, which no longer possesses adequate facilities for the student population. The School Board explored three options: renovating the existing building, constructing a new school on the same sight or moving the high school to nearby Quincy Park.

After months of heated debate, the School Board settled on demolishing and rebuilding the school on the existing site, a far-costlier option than simply renovating the building.

Arlington voters approved bond referendums in 2002 and 2004, totaling more than $74 million, to pay for the construction.

THEN THINGS got complicated. Due to rapidly rising construction costs, specifically the price of steel and other materials, the cost of the project began to balloon quickly.

“We started to experience an incredible escalation in costs, and there was nothing we could do about it,” Hynes said. “So the whole thing kind of took forever.”

The contract was supposed to be awarded in January, with construction commencing in February, but was delayed by two months in order for the school system to solicit a greater number of bids.

Though the total price tag for the new school is $25 million above what was originally estimated, Washington-Lee officials said they are relieved to finally have a contract in place.

“The process has had some delays, but everyone is looking forward with anticipation to moving forward on construction,” said Paul Jamelske, an assistant principal at Washington-Lee.

School Board members said that despite its hefty cost, the decision to build a new school on the existing site will prove to be a smart investment.

“The project has grown in scope and costs since we began looking at Washington-Lee’s needs, but we’re going to continue to work with the community to build it in the least intrusive manner,” Foster said. “The entire community will benefit when it’s completed.”

During the first phase of construction, a four-story academic building will be built on the Stafford Street parking lot, in the northwest corner of the site.

After that is completed, students will occupy the classrooms and the rest of the current building will be demolished. Then common spaces such as the auditorium and swimming pool will be built. The project is set to be completed in 2009.

Due to the project’s rising costs, the school system is currently $15.3 million short of the funds needed to complete the project. There is approximately $14.3 available in a construction reserve fund, but school officials said they need a portion of that money for other initiatives.

THE SCHOOL SYSTEM does not need the additional funding until 2009, so it is not necessary to designate a source for that amount at this time, said Mary Beth Chambers, assistant superintendent of finance.

Hynes described that sum of money as “manageable,” and said it would not be overly straining on the capital reserve fund if the $15.3 million is allocated over a three and a half year period.

“This is within our grasp and there are a number of ways to solve the puzzle of finding the money,” Hynes added.

Yet Foster argues that it is imperative for the School Board to shift some money from its operating budget to its capital fund this year, to ensure that the school system does not need to bring another bond referendum package before voters.

“We have to assume there will be other capital needs,” Foster said. “Our current construction reserve won’t be enough by itself.”