Following months of lobbying by parents, Lucketts Elementary School is poised to gain a three-classroom addition costing some $3.1 million.
The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors approved the school board’s request in January to use some of the leftover fiscal year 2017 funds to pay for the improvements at the school north of Leesburg.
Many parents spoke about overcrowding at the elementary school and carried signs during meetings last year. Some talked about how the full-day kindergarten classes could not be expanded, and some students were being bused to Ball’s Bluff Elementary in Leesburg. In addition, kindergartners did not have an art or music classroom after that room was converted to a regular classroom, and art and music teachers used carts.
Using the fiscal year 2017 leftover funds from the county would enable the improvements to be done several years earlier than if the project was placed in the Capital Improvement Program (CIP), a long-term plan for projects, officials said. The CIP plan calls for several additions to be completed at schools by the fall of 2022, but staff has not identified the schools. Use of the fund balance would enable the Lucketts project to likely be completed by the fall of 2019.
“It’s an opportunity to take advantage of the year-end fund balance,” School Board Chairman Jeff Morse said. “This can be a very quick win.”
The process might not be fair to other schools, such as Meadowland Elementary in Sterling, some members said. “Other schools have significant upgrades that are needed,” said board member Debbie Rose.
Officials have worked on the issue for a long time, and ideas such as adding modular classrooms and adjusting boundaries would not permanently fix the overcrowding problem at Lucketts, board member Eric DeKenipp said. Doing an expansion might help lessen the need for more new schools in the future, added board member Jill Turgeon.
Underlying is the cost itself. In response to the question of why a three-classroom addition would cost as much as an entire 15,000-square-foot mansion on 20 acres, LCPS spokesman Wayde Byard responded with the following statement:
The 5,400-square-foot addition proposed at Lucketts Elementary School includes three classrooms, one resource room and connecting hallways, tying into the existing building in two locations. All the classrooms also have restrooms for the children.
The estimated budget for this project includes items other than the construction; such as costs for architecture, engineering, geotechnical investigations, land surveying and plan approvals. The project scope also includes stormwater management, bio-retention basins, extensive investigation and tie-in to building fire alarm, PA, networking, plumbing, HVAC and other services between the old and new structures. The scope of this project also includes all of the furniture, fixtures and equipment, including teaching technology, computers and supplies to have the new space equipped for full student capacity and use.
The estimated construction costs are based on LCPS and neighboring jurisdictions experience with bid costs for projects of this size. For a quality, experienced school builder, this is a relatively small project, and economy of scale is diminished. While the costs between a residential and school structure may appear comparable, the comparison is really between apples and oranges. The uses, codes, standards and requirements for private, residential construction and public, commercial construction are very different.
Further complicating these projects, it should be noted that the construction of this project will be occurring while the building is occupied by students. Our construction specifications and contractor requirements are structured to ensure the safety and security of our students both during and after construction completion, and these standards cannot be compromised.
When polling a number of residents and construction experts for their thoughts regarding the cost of this expansion, their comments highlight an overall lack of trust for the process and those in control of the money.
“Its the bandwagon effect? Just because the county has been paying a certain amount for construction in the past, doesn’t mean the process or bids are on point,” said Angela Swenson, an Ashburn resident and longtime construction cost manager. “The use of larger firms to do smaller jobs is not necessarily conducive to fiscal responsibility because those firms will jack up their profits to make it worthwhile, where other smaller firms would do twice the job for half the price in their pursuit of growth.”
George Southern Jr., a retired general contractor, responded, “This is simply a group of board members who have no experience in construction or costs but see they have millions of our money left in the bank and trust a flawed system which is not meant to bid out small projects like this. After working in both residential and commercial construction for over 30 years, $3 million for a project like this is absolutely ridiculous — but accepted — because nobody with power and common sense questions it.”
Some county officials are looking at creative ways to cut down construction costs.
Supervisor Ron Meyer (R-Broad Run) noted, “It’s costing us more than $500,000 now just to build one traffic signal — nearly double what it was during the last Board [of Supervisors]. Due to intense increased demand for construction, prices are skyrocketing for contractors. Small jobs aren’t attracting many bidders.”
One idea the county is exploring is to bid for a contractor to do all traffic signals, rather than bidding for one at a time, he said. “This way, the contractors have the scale to offer lower prices. The same could be done for smaller capital projects like school expansions and renovations.”
Another idea, Meyer said, is for the county to create its own department of public works. “This would be outside the box, but we could hire and maintain our own construction crews for smaller projects. If prices continue to skyrocket, we may have no choice but to explore this option.”