WINSLOW — The Winslow School District will continue to work with Stephen Blatt Architects and Ledgewood Construction on renovations to the high school and elementary school buildings.

This is about the only thing that has been decided since Superintendent Peter Thiboutot, architect Doug Breer and construction manager Peter Pelletier announced last month that rising construction costs pushed the projected price of the project $3.125 million over the amount voters approved.

What will be constructed — and how much it will all cost in the end — is still unclear.

“We need to first meet with the architect and the construction manager (privately) to revisit the options they’ve presented to us and have a conversation about that, and once we have a better understanding of that, that’s when we’ll have more conversations (publicly),” Thiboutot said.

The school district will either need to secure more funding or sacrifice some of the planned additions to stay within the bond’s limits — and the clock is ticking. Town Manager Mike Heavener said the town has already taken out the bond and must use 85 percent of it within three years or face a penalty.

“The way the bond is … you need to move forward with something,” Thiboutot said. “So you have a project that you now need to look at how can you modify the project and stay within the scope of what the intent of the project is and come in with the budget that you have is really the challenge that we have. That’s kind of where we’re at.”

Thiboutot updated the school board with this information at a Tuesday evening meeting. Though the architecture firm has presented several alternative designs for the buildings, Thiboutot maintained that no option has been formally selected yet. However, they will not be starting from scratch.

“You can’t really go back to the drafting table — you don’t have time,” he said. “You have to break ground this spring (2019). If you don’t, construction costs will continue to rise and you’ll be in a deeper hole the longer you wait.”

All of the alternate designs include scrapping plans for a new 415-seat auditorium and instead building a band and chorus space onto the existing auditorium. Next to be cut from the renovation plans is either the cafeteria or the gym. Preliminary cost estimates Pelletier prepared indicate that just getting rid of the auditorium plans would bring the project $1.03 million over budget, while not building a new cafeteria would leave the project $776,000 over budget and getting rid of the gym plans would bring it $160,000 over budget.

“We need to look at what is the best option for us (and) how (to) work with the funds that you have and build something that will be a sound facility for your students, with the possibility of being able to add to it in the future if you wanted to,” Thiboutot said.

Before this set of obstacles, financing the project had already been a contentious issue in Winslow. Voters rejected a $10.3 million bond for the renovations in November 2017. The town council then shaved down a subsequent $8.6 million proposal into an $8.1 million plan that received the public’s approval — by a margin of 56 votes — last June.

 

WHAT OPTIONS NEED WHOSE APPROVAL?

William A. Lee III, an attorney for the town of Winslow — not the school board — said that if the ultimate proposal involved spending more than the $8.1 million that voters approved, it would either “require an action by the (town) council to increase the funding or there could be an additional bond put to the voters in a referendum format.”

Steve Russell, chair of the Winslow Town Council, said he doubts the council would approve more funding.

“I really don’t want to speak for the rest of the council members. I don’t want to rule it out that we would come up with money, but at this point it would be unlikely,” he said. “It would depend a little on amount requested.”

As long as the project adheres to the language of the bond question that voters passed, according to Lee, the decisions about what specific renovations to make could be “made strictly by the school board.” That language specified that the project would involve closing the junior high school, renovating the elementary school to incorporate grade six and renovating the high school to incorporate grades seven and eight.

“Let’s say (they wanted to build) eight new classrooms at the high school, but given the funding, they only have enough for six,” Lee said. “The school department could just decide to reduce the scope from eight to six. They still would be implementing the language of the bond in that they’re renovating the high school and renovating the elementary school; they’re just not able to go as far as they wanted. That decision could be made by school department alone. If, when they start working on this, it looks like they are only going to be able to spend money at the high school and not the elementary school — in other words, do part of what the bond says — that would require council approval.”

The only scenario that would require voter approval other than increasing the budget through another bond question is one that is “not on the table,” Lee said.

“If the school board said, ‘Look, we can’t even come close (to doing what we want to do). We’ll spend part of the bond money on renovations at the high school and part on (renovating another town structure). If that were being proposed, that is a matter that would likely require further voter approval.”

 

LEGAL ACTION UNLIKELY

At the Feb. 12 meeting where it was revealed that the costs of completing the project had risen, some citizens voiced frustration with the architect and construction company — and a desire for the town to pursue legal action against them. Thiboutot said that the money the school department has already invested in the duo, mixed with deadline pressure, led the council and school board to ultimately reach a “consensus” that sticking with Stephen Blatt and Ledgewood was appropriate.

“We would lose all of that money, all of that design time. There’s been a lot of time invested,” he said. “You’d have to start all over with someone else, which would be taken out of the bond and leave you with less to build with, which does not help the situation.”

Russell agreed.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions, and there were certainly members of the council who were disappointed with the estimates coming in so out of whack, but I think we can’t change courses in the middle of the stream. We’ve gotta stick with what we have or we lose more money. Not necessarily everyone was happy with it. I think consensus would be the right word.”

Since March 1, 2017, the Winslow school department (and Alternative Organizational Structure 92, before Winslow and Waterville split) has paid Stephen Blatt Architects a total of $278,856.94 and owes an additional $51,531.04, according to invoices dated through Feb. 19.

In the past four weeks, the town council has held two special meetings with the school board in which they entered executive sessions to “discuss potential litigation,” as described on Winslow’s town website.

 Lee said that he did not want to comment on whether the town would sue the architect or construction manager.

“If there were going to be some sort of legal repercussions, I expect that the primary department (to take action) would be the school department,” he said. “Whether the town got involved with it — you never know where that is going to go. But the (power) really rests with the school board, which has a contractual relationship with Stephen Blatt and Ledgewood.”

Thiboutot said it was unlikely that the school district would go that route.

“The architect put his best estimate forward during a time when the construction costs hadn’t skyrocketed,” he said. “As our attorneys would say, it’s very different to hold someone accountable for a bid when construction costs have risen.

“This is not an anomaly right now in the industry,” he added. “I mean, construction costs are up, and it’s unfortunate but it’s happened to us as well. That’s one of the things we learned. When we met with Ledgewood and had conversations about the rising costs that is what it is. It’s not anybody’s error in terms of what the amount is.”

Councilors Ken Fletcher and Jeff West did not respond to requests for comment.

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239
[email protected]
Twitter: @megrobbins

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