To the Editor:
On January 22nd, I attended the School Building Committee (SBC) Meeting about the proposed Curtis Corner High School (CCHS) to learn more about the project and to offer some design suggestions. As a licensed professional engineer who has operated and improved college campus facilities both at the Coast Guard Academy and URI, I have been involved in numerous projects similar to what is proposed for CCHS.
While listening to the SBC’s architectural firm, Robinson-Green-Berreta (RGB), provide an overview of the CCHS proposal, some concerns became apparent. Generally, these presentations from architects highlight the pros and cons of a proposal and let the owner make up own their minds. This was not the approach I saw from RGB. Instead, they spoke only about the project’s strengths and declared that building CCHS at a $62MM budget was not only feasible, but superior to their previous Columbia Street renovation design at the exact same price. During the meeting, Town Manager Rob Zarnetske challenged RGB’s budget numbers. RGB said they carried $400 per square foot for the new portion of CCMS and $120/sf for the renovated portions of the building. For reference, RI Department of Education’s (RIDE) published guidance for estimating new high school construction costs is $535 per square foot. At this stage of a rough budget estimate, common industry practice is to add a 15-25% contingency to the budget for various unknown costs to include hidden conditions behind existing walls or difficult site work. Yet, RGB said they only used a 6-8% contingency in their budget. Red flags went up for me when RGB admitted and then explained how they had “backed into” the $62MM figure so it would fit the allowable budget. The concern with that approach is that if we exceed the estimated cost for the CCMS addition, renovations to the 60-year-old sections of CCMS and/or necessary improvements to the elementary schools will need to be eliminated to stay within the proposed $85MM bond funding.
Keep in mind that RGB is a business and profits from their projects. In this case, a new Stage II submission to RIDE means RGB gets to start over with a new, no-bid contract to design CCHS after they have already been paid to complete the State II submission for the renovations at Columbia Street. The price tag of this redesign was announced at the SBC meeting held March 4th and RGB is asking for an additional $400,000+ to complete the new study. I don’t dispute their costs as a considerable amount of work is required to complete the schematic design of CCHS, but it should be noted that RGB will get paid for completing two schematic designs, when the town can maybe only afford to build one. If this happens, we will have spent nearly $1MM with RGB and other sub-contractors on these facilities studies and we have not even started paying for the final biddable drawings and construction administration fees.
If at the end of this study, the school committee continues to move forward with building a new high school, then these additional design fees would not be wasted. Yet, I don’t believe the new high school will be constructed to the scale and quality expected by the SBC within the $62MM budget RGB claims. I also feel strongly that the project budget must include funds to replace the Curtis Corner recreation fields and trails being removed by the roads and parking lots required to support the proposed CCHS design. With the town manager clearly stating that $85MM is the maximum amount the town can afford to bond for all the projects, three questions remain to be answered:
When will we get a realistic cost estimate for CCHS that includes ALL of the project components including mitigating the impacts on other town assets,
What is the prioritized list of other school facilities’ renovation/improvement projects that must be sacrificed to build CCHS if the cost exceeds $62MM, and
What does it cost the town to maintain or demolish the Columbia Street High School if it is abandoned by the school department and no developers come forward with an acceptable re-use plan?
Without this information it’s not possible to fairly compare the two Stage II applications since both $85MM versions have different impacts on town property, annual operating budgets, and how much construction funding is provided to each of the school buildings.
During their March 4th meeting, Superintendent Linda Savastano suggested the committee members pause and take just 30 minutes to rethink the decision to move forward with a Stage II application to RIDE with CCHS as the preferred alternative. However, only a few minutes into that conversation RGB inserted themselves into the committee’s discussion insisting the SBC move forward with developing the Curtis Corner High School plan. I encourage you to watch the meeting recordings and come to your own conclusions. My conclusion is that RGB stands to make more money developing a project only deemed possibly feasible by their under-estimated budget assumptions. The members of the school building committee should be commended for undertaking this complicated portfolio of projects and asking excellent questions, but it is my belief that they are being poorly advised by their team of paid consultants.
Note that these opinions are my own and do not represent either the SK Recreation Commission or the SK Parks Department