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In 2008 NHS Expansion Went Full Circle



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In 2008 NHS Expansion Went Full Circle

By Eliza Hallabeck

Newtown High School is still structurally the same building as it was at the start of 2008, because no shovels hit the ground as expected this year. The proposed NHS expansion project started the year as a plan and ended the year waiting for a rebid.

During a special “workshop” meeting on January 8, the school board reviewed the proposed plans for the NHS expansion project. The plan included 25 new classrooms and a new cafeteria, both built from scratch. Planned areas for renovation included the school’s child care center, the culinary arts suites, the nurses’ station, the art studios and the video production suites. A “green area” for the overhang protecting the building’s front entrance, two new parking to add 86 new parking spaces, a new track, and a new football field with artificial turf were also in the plans.

A January 24 meeting of the Board of Finance saw the NHS expansion project moved to the hands of its supporters. The school district’s Capital Improvement Plan, which included $38.8 million for the NHS expansion, passed the Board of Finance by one vote.

John Kortze, the finance board chair, spoke for his panel during the meeting, and indicated the supporters for the project share the responsibility of promoting the project to taxpayers prior to its referendum, as well as in the annual budget vote.

Following a public hearing on the $41 million-plus project proposed to expand NHS, as well as improve the school grounds, the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) endorsed the construction proposal, granting the Board of Education a special permit on February 7.

At a joint meeting of the school board and the P&Z at the end of February, both groups voted unanimously to authorize Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson to present the proposed high school expansion to officials in Hartford on March 4 for a code review. Without the approval of the state’s Board of School Facilities, the town could not move forward and solicit bidding on the project.

The Board of Selectmen voted down the NHS expansion project funding on March 17 in a 2-1 vote. During the meeting Democratic minority Selectman Herb Rosenthal told Republican Selectman Paul Mangiafico that voting No would not kill the project. He said a No vote would force the school board to come back to the selectmen with either an adjusted plan or appropriate justification for why the district was still advocating for the maximum buildout despite its own population consultant’s reports of downward trending student enrollment. 

For the second time in just over a year, a vocal group of residents converged on a Legislative Council meeting voicing support for an initiative the council had no legal power to influence. And, according to Legislative Council Chairman Will Rodgers, for the second time those concerned residents may have been misinformed by e-mail newsletters and advocacy from town PTA representatives and the Independent Party of Newtown. Many residents called for voters to decide in a referendum vote on whether or not to fund the high school expansion during the council’s March 19 meeting.

Back On The Table

A 4-2 vote by the Board of Education put the $38.8 million proposed high school expansion back on the table on March 25 during a special meeting. Only the Board of Selectmen is empowered to borrow money on behalf of the town. But before the project can go before voters, in a referendum scheduled for April 22, it needed to be approved by the Legislative Council and the Board of Finance.

On April 2 the Legislative Council voted unanimously to send the high school resolution forward to the Board of Selectmen.

By the start of April, the Board of Education had been devoting its meetings to planning, vetting, budgeting and scheduling the high school expansion for months. School board Chair Elaine McClure said at the time, “We’re at the eleventh hour,” as the board waited for the project to pass the Board of Selectmen and move to an expected referendum on April 22.

The Board of Selectmen voted on April 7 to move the expansion project to the ballot. Along with the $38,826,000 special appropriation for the construction phase of a high school expansion voters were asked to vote on the proposed town budget and a $1 million special appropriation for a combined community and senior center design phase.

According to town registrars, 6,200 voters or 38 percent of those eligible, turned out to Newtown Middle School on April 22 and endorsed every measure on the complex referendum ballot. By relevant margins on every line, the sequence of Yes votes outnumbered those in the No column, authorizing the town’s highest municipal budget, and the single largest municipal spending investment, in the town’s history.

After approval by the State Department of Education, a timeline document prepared for the district by the project’s construction management firm, the Morganti Group, circulated at the school board after May 6. The timeline indicated, among other events, bid documents were expected to be delivered by the project’s architect firm Fletcher Thompson by May 19 for final review by the district and other parties involved. The bids were projected to be advertised beginning June 5, and bid documents were planned to be available to bidders by June 9. One month later, on July 9, the bids were to be done. The Morganti Group expected to present the qualifying bids and request approval to proceed with construction from town officials on July 29, and to notify contractors they had been awarded contracts on July 30.

During its May 20 meeting, the school board learned from a representative of the Morganti Group that the expansion project would not be completed by September 2009 as previously understood. At the earliest, according to the Morganti Group, the project could be completed by the end of November 2009.

Almost a month later, during a meeting on June 10, the school board learned the project had to be pushed back two weeks due to the town hiring an outside engineer to assess the work planned.

Bids Over Budget

Less than 24 hours after the bids were opened for the NHS expansion project, School Business Manager Ronald Bienkowski and two members of the Public Building and Site Commission received an e-mail from Ed Barrett, project manager for the expansion, stating the bids were nearly $4 million over budget before factoring in any alternates, including a turf field, track improvements, and the construction management fees. Bids for the project closed on July 29.

The August 12 meeting of the school board had Mr Barrett explaining material costs had risen and caused bids to come in over budget. School Superintendent Janet Robinson said the “what ifs” attached to the NHS expansion project needed to be talked about, because the alternative would mean finding the district in a mess if the worst scenario were to happen. Dr Robinson said ideas were being passed around already, but a perfect fix for the situation had not yet been found. “I will come to you with something,” Dr Robinson said at the time, “but I am not sure what that will be yet.”

After hearing a representative of the Morganti Group discuss the NHS expansion project on August 19, the Public Building and Site Commission decided during a special meeting to recommend the project go back for referendum and go simultaneously under review for value engineering suggestions.

Four months after local taxpayers approved the largest single municipal project appropriation ever to underwrite the expansion of NHS, taxpayers were facing a possible request of $6 million more for the project by August 27. Before a special meeting of the school board was held on Thursday, August 28, it became clear to Dr Robinson that the project would require approximately $6.045 million more. A special appropriation request was starting to be discussed to move to referendum as early as October.

“We all wish we weren’t sitting here today,” Board of Education Chair Elaine McClure told her board during its special meeting on August 28. One question was repeated during the special meeting by multiple members of the board: How could the NHS expansion project be off by so much? After hearing different perspectives on the project, the school board unanimously decided to request the extra $6 million for the project.

“Obviously the big things you are off on are the bid package numbers four, five, and nine. Those are all off; 45 percent off on the metals, 30 percent off on the general trades, and 41 percent off on the HVAC,” said board member Kathy Fetchick to Mr Barrett during the board’s meeting on September 2. “And I was hoping you could be a little more specific other than [saying] it’s just material or inflation. That’s just an incredible amount, and accounts for most of the overage.”

During the September 2 meeting Mr Barrett explained to the board that the Morganti Group had learned through scope reviews on the project that bidders had experienced spiking costs in materials during the time prior to the bids being released. He also said the bidders had taken into account any additional escalating costs in the future when bidding on the individual projects.

On September 8 a tie vote caused the motion recommending the appropriation of additional spending on the expansion project to fail during the Board of Finance’s meeting. The request moved to the Legislative Council for possible consideration for its September 17 scheduled meeting.

The school board learned about a new requirement by the United States Green Building Council that could add up to 15 percent to the total cost of the NHS expansion project during its September 16 meeting. Dr Robinson explained that the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System will force all new school buildings submitted to the state in or after January 2009 to meet a Silver level of qualification.

On the evening of September 17, the Legislative Council proved just how far it was willing to gamble. The panel endorsed moving the $6 million-plus appropriation to taxpayers to meet escalating costs to expand and renovate Newtown High School. But in doing so, the council rolled the dice, betting on Connecticut State Senator John McKinney to help shepherd a waiver so taxpayers would not be forced to ante up as much as another 15 percent of the project cost to meet the new state mandated green building standard.

Back To The Voters

Six days later, the Board of Selectman voted to send the supplemental $6.045 million request to voters in a referendum without approving either the initial $38.8 million or an additional appropriation to complete the high school expansion proposal.

Less than a week before the high school expansion project went to referendum, the Board of Education held an informal meeting to allow Newtown residents to ask questions about both the referendum and the project. The meeting was conducted on October 1 at the Reed Intermediate School library. Drawings of the planned addition for the school were brought in and put on display for the meeting by Fletcher Thompson, the architectural firm on the project, and coffee and cookies were set up for residents who attended.

The referendum authorizing the additional $6.045 million to fully fund the over-budget high school renovation failed by a 26-vote margin with 2,421 Yes votes and 2,447 No votes Tuesday, October 7.

“It’s a sad time for us to be meeting,” said board Chair McClure as she opened the school board’s meeting the day after the referendum failed. Dr Robinson listed different options the board could move on during the meeting, but no decision was made by the board by the end of the meeting.

With the first bids for the NHS expansion expiring on October 26, the Board of Education held a joint meeting with members of the Boards of Finance and Selectmen, the Public Building and Site Commission, and the Legislative Council on October 22 to discuss the situation.

Inspection of possible alternates and deletions from the proposed project and the option of rebidding the project were discussed during the Board of Education’s meeting held on November 5. Nothing was decided on the project by the end of the meeting.

A heated debate occurred during the Board of Finance’s meeting on November 19, when it discussed whether the town might be eligible to recover damages from the architect or construction management firm in relation to over-budget bids that came in on the proposed high school expansion. Following more than 20 minutes of sometimes heated dialogue, the board agreed to keep options open, but to carry on any further deliberations on the matter during future meetings in closed session.

As Thanksgiving dinner preparations were underway in homes across town, a growing contingent of public officials and contractors working for the town under the direction of the Board of Education urged their members to talk turkey about the future Newtown High School expansion proposal. By the November 25 Public Building and Site Commission (PBSC) meeting, officials and consultants involved in the proposed expansion of NHS said the school board needed to get the project back on track, and fast.

The Board of Education voted in favor of rebidding the expansion project during its meeting on December 3, after debating the option of redesigning part or all of the project and different options for alternates. During the meeting, the board heard from multiple public participants who expressed strong sentiments regarding the proposed addition for the culinary space at the school. In the 6-1 vote the board decided to move forward with rebidding the project with the addition of the value management modifications and alternates for the track, synthetic field, tennis courts, gym basement storage, lightening protection, main entry realignment, and parking areas as alternates.

During the school board’s next meeting on December 17, it approved the procurement and the request for a special appropriation for installation of modular classrooms at NHS. The eight classrooms are planned to be installed connected to the existing modular classroom units in place, and will accommodate the expected increase of students for September 2009.

On December 15 the Board of Selectmen voted 2-1 in approval of the project going out for rebid. Rebidding must come back at or under the $38.8 million already approved by taxpayers for the construction phase of the project. But the additional costs for rebidding are coming from a $355,000 balance of money already bonded for the design phase of the project.

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