Archive for Thursday, October 11, 2007

Patron calls into question costs in bond issues

October 11, 2007

Basehor resident and business owner Dennis Mertz is encouraging other residents to "be informed."

A large sign outside Mertz's business on 155th Street displays this message along with the address for a Web site, www.usd458.info.

Mertz, who has about 12 years experience in the school construction industry, created the Web site a little more than a week ago, he said, because he thinks the Basehor-Linwood school district bond issue amount is too high.

"I want them (residents) aware that we are paying more per square foot than any other school district in the area," Mertz said.

On the homepage, Mertz states the Web site was created to present facts and provide a link to a public forum so everybody could voice their opinions on the bond issue that has been presented to district patrons. A fact sheet on the site displays the cost of each portion of the bond issue, including a new third- through fifth-grade elementary school for $11.45 million, a new sixth- through eighth-grade middle school for $24.8 million, six additional classrooms and renovations at Glenwood Ridge Elementary School for $2.5 million, renovations at Linwood Elementary for $750,000 and a new soccer field for $400,000 for a total of $39.9 million.

The cost per square foot for each element of the bond issue is also broken down and compared to several other area schools that either were built recently or are currently in the construction process. The figures on the Web site show that Basehor-Linwood is paying more per square foot than any other school listed.

Mill Creek Middle School, listed as DeSoto Middle School on the site, which was completed in February 2007, is shown to have cost $20 million for 110,000 square feet or $181 per square foot. Basehor-Linwood's proposed new middle school is expected to cost $24.8 million for 109,800 square feet or $225 per square foot. Completion is expected in 2009 or 2010.

Delaware Ridge Elementary in Bonner Springs is listed as costing $7.3 million for 53,760 square feet with a completion date in 2008, which puts it at $135 per square foot. The proposed new elementary school is listed as $11.45 million for 52,400 square feet, or $218 per square foot.

Mertz said he was concerned because the numbers show that other districts are receiving larger schools and more amenities for less money.

"Why are we over $200 per square foot?" Mertz asked.

District administrators, however, are questioning the accuracy of Mertz's figures.

In his research, assistant superintendent David Howard said the numbers listed for at least Mill Creek Middle School and Delaware Ridge are incorrect. After contacting representatives from both districts, Howard said Mill Creek Middle School is 115,000 square feet at a cost of $22 million while Delaware Ridge was 65,700 square feet costing $9.548 million with completion in August 2007. Denis Johnson, director of facilities for the De Soto school district, and architect Eric Byrne with ACI, Frangkiser and Hutchens, who built Delaware Ridge, confirmed the numbers.

While these corrected figures do not solve the cost-per-square-foot issue, Howard and Superintendent Bob Albers blame inflation for the higher rates in the Basehor-Linwood district. Most of the schools listed on the Web site have or will be completed this year, while Basehor-Linwood's proposed schools would not be completed until 2009 or 2010. Albers said the district factored in about a 5.5 inflation rate per year for construction costs.

"The market will tell us what the cost will be, but this is the best estimate we have right now," Albers said.

At least one school listed on Mertz's Web site defeats the district's inflation theory, which is the new middle school planned in the Blue Valley school district. Mertz's Web site has it listed as a planned 130,000-square-foot school with several sports fields and new furniture for $21 million with a completion date in 2011. But, Al Hanna, deputy superintendent of administrative services for the Blue Valley district, confirmed that these numbers were also incorrect. Hanna said the total budget for the middle school was $25.9 million for 120,000 square feet, resulting in $216 per square foot instead of $161 per square foot as listed on the Web site.

While this figure is still under Basehor-Linwood's cost per square foot, Hanna said that the $280 million bond issue was passed in the Blue Valley district at the beginning of 2005 and planning work was completed in spring 2004. He said during planning, the district factored in a 5 percent annual inflation rate.

Figuring inflation several years down the road on construction projects, Hanna said, was a tricky task.

"We had to ask, what are they (schools) going to cost seven years down the road?" Hanna said. "That's really difficult to do. We do have some concerns because we're hearing that construction costs are going up at a higher rate than we thought. The cost of steel and cement have already jumped dramatically. It's very difficult to predict."

Other choices

The process of choosing an architect for the projects is also different in both of the school districts. Hanna said Blue Valley solicited a number of firms, received proposals from probably a dozen different firms, narrowed the field using a committee of staff and district patrons, then conducted interviews before recommending a firm to the school board.

Basehor-Linwood did not solicit several firms, but renewed a contract with Horst, Terrill & Karst Architects because of their long-term relationship with the district and the district's satisfaction with the firm's past work.

"Horst, Terrill & Karst was the architect on the high school," Albers said. "The board has all the confidence in the world in them and this is their professional estimate."

Mertz suggested the higher price for Basehor schools might also be due to the building materials chosen. He said new schools now typically consist of a steel structure with impact resistant Sheet Rock instead of the more expensive option of brick and cinder block. Albers said he chose brick and cinder block construction for the proposed schools because of the quality. He said they were the strongest materials and would last the longest.

"I think patrons of Basehor-Linwood expect quality schools," Howard said. "And, if the bond passes, we'll build something that's quality. To me, there is nothing worse than constructing a substandard building."

As for cost, both Albers and Howard said they are confident with the projected amount.

Albers said the district would be permitted to issue up to $39.9 million in bonds. The bonds would be issued in gradual phases, and while the district can issue fewer bonds if the costs prove to be less than predicted, the district cannot issue more if cost predictions fall short.

District officials would rather have enough money to build quality schools and provide those schools with updated technology and equipment than run out of funds and have to start taking short cuts, Albers said.

"In a way, I hope Mr. Mertz's figures are correct because our buildings would cost less and we wouldn't have to issue all the bonds," Albers said.

Mertz said he has three children currently attending schools in the district and was also on the "vote yes" committee for the last bond issue, but he said there was only one way he would possibly vote yes on this bond issue.

"If they could get it under $200 (per square foot) for the middle school and under $171 (per square foot) for the elementary school, I would consider voting yes," he said.

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