District 5 Plans for Irmo School Raise Questions

June 24, 2011

Investigative Reports

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Lexington-Richland School District 5 has another problem with a school construction project. And like several other endeavors, it’s one that has been changed after it was approved by voters in 2008.

On June 14, board members agreed to the administration’s recommendation to accept the low bid for a major project at Irmo Elementary, a school that has been promised upgrades for years and was part of the $243 million bond referendum that passed in 2008.

Plans include renovations to the original building that opened in 1933, demolition of a classroom building that was constructed in 1985 and construction of a new classroom building that will house six more classrooms than currently used.

The bid approved for construction costs, however, was 21 percent over the construction-costs budget.

The proposal approved that night was $14,569,830. But, according to District 5 documents, that bid is already $2.5 million over the $12 million budgeted for construction costs.

The total costs originally approved for the project in the 2007 referendum (which failed) were $17.6 million. (Total costs include construction, construction management and architectural fees, indirect costs, and contingency and escalation amounts.) In the 2008 referendum, the total costs were revised to $17.7 million.

But the reason for the steep overage in the construction cost bid (in a down economy) is unknown.

There was no discussion at the meeting between the administration and board members (at least publicly) related to the increased costs, there were no documents to that regard in the board’s online packet and there has been no vote to amend the budget.

Since the budget for the project was developed in the period after Hurricane Katrina hit and construction costs were at an all-time high, a more favorable bid would have been be expected.

Additional cost savings should have also been evident.

Following the passage of the referendum, the capacity of this school was significantly cut back.

Right-sizing,” as Superintendent Herb Berg called it in a letter posted on his web page, “… will help reduce costs.”

The original scope approved by voters, according to floor plans, specifications, and the budget initially posted on the district’s website and displayed throughout the 2007 and 2008 referendum campaigns, added enough classrooms to accommodate an enrollment of 798 students – a fairly substantial increase of 300 seats. (The campaign materials were removed from the website after the referendum passed.)

But drawings presented to the board in September 2009, a year later, for schematic approval showed a substantial reduction in the number of classrooms from those in the referendum plans.

The revised drawings provided only six more classrooms than those currently used. (The plans that were put out for bid have not been posted on line.)

Another puzzling factor: At a board meeting prior to the schematic drawing approval, Keith McAlister, the district’s new design and construction director, told board members that administration recommended completely demolishing the 49,000-square-foot addition built in 1985 instead of renovating and expanding it.

He said the estimates reflected a difference of only $30,000 between the two options. The board subsequently approved the demolition option.

Questions remain: Why is the project over-budget 21 percent in a down economy and after a substantial reduction in scope? How will the school district handle the $2.5 million overage? And will public discussion on the matter take place?

District 5 has had its share of construction related issues: It failed to seek timely required state approvals for Leaphart and Seven Oaks elementary schools; controversy surrounds a proposed new high school site and the administration’s threat to use eminent domain; and Chapin High School’s project has encountered site development troubles.

That project, according to the district, is $6 million over budget.

Kim Murphy and her family live in Chapin. She serves on the State Workforce Investment Act Board and the Richland County Appearance Commission.