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School construction money released – Officials wrestle with spending plans

July 3, 2012 in Events

On July 1, the state began releasing some $270 million for the reconstruction of Kelly Walsh High School, the remodeling of Natrona County High School, and other high school projects.

A very pleased Natrona County School District board was told of the progress at its regular meeting last week, and given a report on the timelines for the rejuvenation of the two high schools, along with construction of the Center for Advanced Placement Studies (CAPS), a third school to house four specialized academies that will be shared by the two schools. In addition, the district was given design money for a new Roosevelt High School.

All the projects combined will cost some $286 million, of which all but the Roosevelt construction funds (estimated at around $16 million) have been approved by the legislature.

“I think that the legislature and the governor, and the school district … I firmly believe that everybody put a lot of their differences aside and said, ‘What’s best for education here?’” said school board trustee Steve Degenfelder. “I think we’ve got a very workable situation, and we’re moving forward.

“Now that we have the MOU [memorandum of understanding] done with the School Facilities Department [SFD], we’ve got the architects re-engaged with the high schools, and that allows us to probably start some preliminary construction before the end of the year,” Degenfelder added.

This isn’t the first time the district thought it was in the clear, however, and the journey has been a long one. The last hurdle was a delay of all the high school projects over the past year as the board grappled with an unexpected shift involving state guidelines, and a political battle in the legislature that saw already approved funding briefly stripped away for everything but KWHS.

Funding was restored in the final legislative appropriation, and provided to design and build KWHS, with the full funding available on July 1. NCHS design funds were also released July 1, with construction money to be released in January 2013. CAPS design and construction money was also released July 1, while only design and planning money was given for Roosevelt, with construction funds to be considered in the next legislature, as part of the state’s supplemental budget.

With things now back on track, the board is optimistic that some preliminary construction can begin as early as next spring at NCHS, and full reconstruction on KWHS may be underway as early as next summer, according to trustee Donn McCall.

“We don’t think it’s unreasonable, or a product of our sort of pent up expectations, given the fact that we’ve been off the project in terms of any design or progress for almost a year. It’s our hope that we could see some activity in both campuses by the spring of 2013,” McCall said. “Now, if you look at NCHS, the 100 percent design of NCHS, because you’re doing a combination of a rebuild of areas that would be demoed [demolished], and those decisions haven’t been made … and then you’re looking at a restoration of the 1924 original building, it’s a more complicated process from the standpoint of designs.”

“So, from what we understand, you would reasonably anticipate that the design of NCHS is probably going to take, if they’re getting into it now, 18 months or around December of 2013 … the construction activity on the main project can’t start until July 2013, because the construction appropriation doesn’t become effective until that date. But is it reasonable to expect that construction can start without having the full design completed? So we’re asking those questions,” McCall explained.

“Kelly Walsh, if the design starts now, it probably won’t take as long as NCHS, maybe about a year, the summer or mid-summer of 2013,” McCall said. “So the question is, are there aspects of the Kelly Walsh construction project, for which there’s money now for that work, some of the site work can be commenced under the auspices of the construction manager-at-risk in the spring, or possibly even earlier?”

McCall said a lot depends on the working relationship between the SFD and the district. That relationship has been contentious at times, including several appeals by the district of actions by the SFD, which were eventually dropped at the governor’s request in order to get some funding re-allocated.

“All you can do is say, ‘Well, what’s in the best interest of our kids?’” McCall stated. “We’re going to be working together for a number of years, and you’ve got to start working towards building a relationship of trust because we’re talking about a lot of money, and it’s a challenge in Casper where right now we have $270 million in just high school projects, and that doesn’t include the $16 million we’re waiting on for Roosevelt. So you’ve got almost $300 million in projects, and people on both sides who’ve got to make it work, and we obviously have enough challenges when you’re dealing with something of this magnitude.

“From what I’ve seen over the last couple of months, I’m encouraged by the fact that the communication is open. Already we’ve had four meetings between our staff, the superintendent and the staff and director at SFD, and things are starting to happen,” he said.

One of those challenges is where NCHS students will be placed during the remodeling of the school. The district is hopeful the students can stay on campus, while the SFD wanted to move them to the “old” KWHS, after the “new” KWHS is done.

The district is concerned about relocating some 1,850 NCHS students to another part of town for two years, and would also further delay the remodeling NCHS. The district is proposing using a planned 85,000-square-foot indoor athletic facility at NCHS for “swing space,” the term being used to mean temporary classrooms and facilities. The district over the past two years has been developing a plan to fund construction of the indoor facility, with or without state assistance, and recently acquired enough adjacent property as part of the overall NCHS remodeling master plan to accommodate it, along with a new swimming pool (which the state also may not fund).

“I think there’ll be some discussions when Bassetti [the architectural firm for NCHS] comes to Casper with their team in July to explore and get everybody up to speed on what are the options,” McCall said, noting Bassetti will be presenting a report and recommendations on the overall master plan for NCHS, including swing space options.

“We looked at CAPS, is that a viable option for swing space?” McCall said of earlier planning discussions. “We sort of know were Kelly Walsh sort of hit a dead end, because the city really sent the message to all of us of ‘good luck’ on getting a permit with putting 4,000 students and faculty [combined NCHS and KWHS] in a high school that’s built right in the middle of a neighborhood, and the adverse effect on our arterial streets, and health and safety concerns, the city raised. I don’t really think that’s a viable option.

“We could look at options as to portables on the NCHS campus; but, really, you have to look at the expense. What’s the most efficient and cost-effective approach?” McCall went on. “CY Middle School years ago was discussed as a possibility, but … from what I understand, it would take probably a $5 million investment, which would be a waste of money to sort of retrofit and get CY into a condition where maybe you could get an occupancy permit from the city. I think the city’s interest is that building should be condemned.

“So, from our perspective, we have an interest in seriously looking at the ‘indoor facility’ as a really viable option,” McCall said. “But we’re not to get ahead of anybody. Hopefully there’ll be an opportunity here over the next couple months to have serious discussions and perhaps a decision made … Bassetti is the architect for that particular school, and AP Wyoming, the construction manager-at-risk for that particular project, they’ll probably have the bigger say on it, and I guess we’ll be looking at them for recommendations, we’re just trying to provide input.”

Another concern is Roosevelt won’t be funded in the next legislative session, which would mean losing the cost effectiveness of building it at the same time as CAPS, and some functional problems for CAPS because the proposed shared space wouldn’t be available.

“CAPS will need around 7,000 square feet of the Roosevelt space. Certainly contractors will tell you that it’s very difficult to come up with an efficient and most cost-effective approach, if you build separately,” McCall said.

“Hopefully funding will be provided. If funding isn’t available, you know maybe, at most, you can go one more year, but I think you’ll be talking if CAPS could be ready in time [for use by NCHS and KWHS programs]. So, that’s another challenge,” McCall said.

And it may be a real one. At a meeting of the legislature’s Select Committee on School Facilities in Casper last week, co-chairman Sen. Hank Coe raised the issue of the state’s decline in revenues from natural gas, an important driver in state revenue.

“You know there are some changes taking place out there in the energy sector,” Coe said. “We’ve slowed down, I mean the real factor is with $2 gas out there, and 65 percent of what we do dependent upon minerals, and we build schools with coal lease bonus bids, and I don’t need to tell anybody — I just came back from a conference — coal is under attack in this country. I’m concerned, because if we look at trying to project enrollments, and we look at trying to do the right thing, and it’s based on projections, but here we’ve got the governor requesting 4 to 8 percent cuts of agencies, and we’re looking at the future a little bit, you know revenue projections … the school foundation program finds itself in a difficult situation.

“I will say that as we go down this road of building schools two, three years down the road, I can tell you I think we’re going to have some problems. Rather than just say we need to build a school here, or build a school there, the money might not be there. So, I’m not going to say that the legislature could de-appropriate some of this money, I’ve seen it happen before, but I think we need to get going on it. And I remember times when we funded the school foundation program by robbing money from other accounts, and so I emphasize the concern I have …”

Coe was a principle in trying to reduce the amount of funding going to some of the school projects in the last legislature.

On the other hand, another concern of some on the legislative committee was the apparent slow pace at which schools were being built around the state, despite approved appropriations by the legislature. Committee co-chair Steve Harshman made several comments to SFD director Ian Catellier about the issue.

“You know, there’s nothing going on with that $774 million [in appropriated school construction funds], so I think it’s really important that we don’t delay this through analysis paralysis,” Harshman said during Catellier’s presentation of how regulations required in new state statutes are being developed.

Rep. Gregg Bilkre, R-Gillette, also pressed on the construction issue.

“One thing that I think isn’t being weighed at all is with respect to our kids in overcrowded schools, because schools that have already been funded aren’t moving forward,” Bilkre commented. “So it’s important to move some of this forward and anybody in here that has heard contractors in Wyoming are crying for work, they want to work. So I don’t know if we have to study it for the next 22 years before we build a school or not.”

To which Harshman added to the SFD staff, “I understand you’re giving us information, but … I think there’s a lot of folks on this committee that want to build some stuff. We’ve been very generous, the governor has been really lenient with us to add a lot to this construction budget, and boy we just don’t want to lose it all to inflation, and then everybody gets less than more.”

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, then noted, however, that the funds aren’t wasting away.

“The $700 to $800 million isn’t just sitting around, it’s sitting around invested, and it’s not sitting around in the 2 or 1 percent money market, so it’s inflation proof,” Rothfuss said, adding, “I understand if we get in a situation where the cost of construction goes up faster than inflation … then it truly is a problem.”

A related issue around the pace of construction, and in support of moderating any construction was concern about overloading the in-state companies with more work than they could handle, and consequently opening the door to out-of-state contractors.

“If we put more schools out there than that capacity, because if we want to use the money, the state money, to generate jobs, the economy, then do we want to have more bids out there than Wyoming contractors could handle, so that we’re enticing contractors from the states surrounding us?” said Sen. Kit Jennings, R-Natrona. “Or, are we asking the director, and I think we have asked the director, to come up with a way to predict the right amount of construction that equals what our Wyoming contractors can handle?”

In Casper, McCall said the district is looking in some detail how it can stagger the $270 million in construction projects enough so local contractors who might need to ramp-up and hire more employees could be assured a period of steady work.

“I don’t think it serves the community, serves our construction projects, to all of a sudden dump something in over a year of $200 to $300 million and create inflation, and create hardships where companies are gearing up, and building up the labor force, and then after two years, boom, you go off the cliff. So there’s definitely an interest in coming up with a plan,” McCall said.

“That plan will be developed by our design teams, but I think the interest is fairly well summarized in let’s take a look at what’s in the pipeline this year in Casper, in public construction projects. Now there’s a lot of private construction that’s pretty significant in its own right, but four public construction projects this year that will be completed by the spring of 2013, or thereabouts, involve the Southridge Elementary School that we’re building, the University of Wyoming-CC Center and Union at Casper College, a music building at Casper College, and then the addition to the west tower to the Wyoming Medical Center. Those projects total about $95 million.

“One of the questions that we have an interest in exploring is, if there’s about $95 million in the pipeline this year, what is a realistic objective when our high school projects start coming on board next year?” McCall said. “When you look at the Kelly Walsh Phase 2, you look at the NCHS projects, the swing space facility, depending on the timing of those, and you look at the total value of just the high school projects, I think it’s reasonable to ask … can these projects be staggered to where we run $95 to $100 million a year, at least for the next four or so years, which would spread out the construction, and would sort of level out the funding, and the value of work that’s going into our local economy?

“I don’t know what the final answer will be, after those more expert than me look at this, but I think we’re just sort of operating from this approach, that there’s a way to do this, to not adversely affect the construction industry, and at the same time meet our goal of trying to get these projects completed so that we’ll be able to send Kelly Walsh and NC students to CAPS at the same time,” McCall concluded. “That just means this isn’t going to be jammed and crammed into one year, or two years. It will probably be three or four, and I think that will serve everybody’s interests.”


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