ELYRIA — Faced with rising construction costs, Elyria Schools is looking to implement cost-savings changes to its master plan, which lays out how the district will rebuild itself with state and local money in the next few years.
A plan designed to shrink the district’s elementary and middle schools from 11 buildings to five new buildings could now change so the district would have an even smaller footprint across the city. Saturday morning, district officials met to discuss cutting the new elementary and middle schools to three campus-style buildings with one each on the west, east and north ends of town.
The proposed plan would eliminate two kindergarten-through-fourth-grade schools slated to go on the former Hamilton school site and at the Ely Elementary School location. The plan would eliminate elementary education on Elyria’s south side, which saw Roosevelt Elementary School close in 2009.
Costly without changes
The district is projected to be over budget by $3 million with the current plan, but changing the master plan would carve out a cushion upward of $6 million, making it easier to hit the target figure of $124 million for the new schools.
Without changes to the master plan, district officials fear costs could grow to $135 million or more.
“We were stunned last week to find out that due to construction costs and due to labor costs, our budget was over by $3 million just with the first two buildings,” Superintendent Tom Jama said following the special meeting. “We did not anticipate this. The construction manager and architect did not anticipate this as well. This increase is caused solely by the economy, the increase in labor costs and increase in material costs.”
The board did not approve the proposed changes Saturday.
Board President Kevin Brubaker said board members will vote at a future meeting, possible as early as Wednesday. After Wednesday’s meeting, the board’s next meeting is in late April.
“I’m not saying we have to make a decision Wednesday, but a decision has to be made before the project can move forward,” he said.
Why change? Why now?
When Elyria voters first approved the bond issue in November 2016, Ohio saw a surge in similar projects. School districts throughout the state saw voters collectively approve a large number of construction projects — all told, more than $1 billion in new construction hit the market at once.
That was in 2016, said David Stahl, the manager of AECOM Construction Group of Cleveland, which is the district’s lead firm in a three-firm construction management team. In 2017, Ohio voters added another $700 million in new school construction to the market.
That surge in addition to state and federal changes — a tariff on steel and a new state law that mandates new schools have areas that can serve as storm shelters — has changed the market in as little as two years, which was when Elyria set its construction budget.
“Right now, you’re building the cushion to protect against market inflation,” Stahl said.
Holding for a decision
Paul Rigda, who is the district’s former superintendent and acts as a consultant on the project, said Architectural Vision Group, the district’s architects, are temporarily on hold until the board makes a decision.
The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, which is paying two-thirds of the costs of construction of the new schools, agrees the proposed changes will keep the project within budget.
“The projections are that costs will go up and with the option to go with three buildings, it could mean they are built faster,” said Tracy June, the commission’s project manager.
The state-recommended change would call for the construction of three campuses: Northwood (K-8), Westwood (PreK-8) and Eastern Heights (K-8). In this scenario, the district’s preschool program would be at Westwood.
Under the initial plan, Northwood would get preschool students.
Also under the state-recommended plan, the three campuses will be larger than originally intended.
While district officials are still ironing out the details, one thing was clear Saturday: The changes would affect students in many ways. Jama said the district would have to use “swing schools” to accelerate the timeline.
Swing schools in a construction project would place students in a different building while their new school is constructed. Once the new building is open, those students would return to their home schools.
“It’s a little out of the box and not what we said we would do in the campaign, but when you are presented with a difficult situation, you have to come up with a solution,” Jama said.
This is the tentative plan: Northwood would open in December 2019. Eastern Heights and Westwood would open in December 2020. This pushes Northwood’s opening by about six months, but it also means Eastern Heights and Westwood would likely open sooner than originally expected.
Building design not compromised
When preparing advanced design documents for the schools and running into costs overruns, Stahl, the district’s project manager, said he cut everything that was not related to what the district wanted in its modern schools before reaching the figure of $3 million over budget.
At that point, Ann Schloss, the district’s associate superintendent, said a decision was made not to compromise 21st-century educational spaces to save money.
“There is no point in building new schools if they will not have what our kids need for the future,” she said.
“We are not going back to bells and cells because it’s not what’s best for kids,” Jama said.
The Northwood Campus is the furthest along in the process, and its proposed design illustrates what the district said it wants in the new schools.
Northwood will offer a more modern, colorful design, yet fit in with the entire design plan of the new schools throughout the city. The exterior materials of all of the buildings will resemble materials used on the exterior of Elyria High School. The new schools will have extended learning areas, collaborative spaces that are flexible and progressive for teaching and learning.
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