High costs may force North Adams officials to scale back Conte School building project


Photo Gallery: Walkthrough of the former Silvio O. Conte Middle School

Editor's note: This article was modified on March 1, 2014 to clarify that the former Silvio O. Conte Middle School will be renovated into a K-7 elementary school, not a middle school, and that 80 percent of the project will be reimbursed by the state School Building Authority (MSBA), not a state grant.

NORTH ADAMS -- Officials may have to scale back and spare some details in the renovation of the former Silvio O. Conte Middle School into an elementary school.

The School Building Committee was surprised and "disheartened" this week when subcontract bids, expected to total about $12 million, came it at nearly $1 million over projected costs.

North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright said he won't ask voters for more funding with a deficit already looming in next year's budget. Now the city is left hoping for a general contracting bid, due March 10, that lines up with an estimate of $21.8 million.

Alcombright said that, for now, the committee is "sitting tight." But if general contracting estimates were also off by 8 percent, the project would be over budget by about $1.6 million -- and may need rethinking.

"If we're $1.6 million over then we have to look at the entire project and first of all just assess what can we take out and still make this project work," Alcombright said. "At the end of the day though, we don't want to see a project that [is] crippled."

The city shuttered the building, which last served as a middle school, after it abandoned the middle school concept and gained special permission from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to use a K-7, 8-12 concept. The former middle school will replace Sullivan Elementary School after the more than $30 million renovation, 80 percent of which is reimbursed to the city through the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The project is slated to be completed in fall 2015.

Project Architect Margo Jones, of Jones Whitsett Architects, and project manager Kenneth Guyette are currently working on ways to save money, according to Alcombright.

"None of it's easy to say ‘we can do without it,' " Jones said. "But we are trying to trim our sales budget."

Jones noted that since it's already been bid out, the subcontracting work will likely have to remain mostly the same, but savings could be found in the general contracting work.

In working with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, Alcombright said, the city has added and subtracted various facets of the renovation -- such as uplighting -- in an effort to stay on budget as cost estimates have fluctuated. At one point, the MSBA told the committee it was over budget by $750,000, and at another said it had $300,000 to work with, according to Alcombright. Since some parts of the renovation already have been subtracted and re-added, Alcombright said, they could be dropped again.

"When we pulled out $750,000 [in the planning] it didn't impact the quality of the education," Alcombright said. "We're talking about changing flooring, changing Astroturf to chips at the playground, and hallway air conditioning. You start pulling these out and you get to $700,000 or $800,000 very quickly."

Original subcontract bid estimates, which include roofing and electrical work, were conducted by two companies hired by the project's architects and totaled about $12.1 million. The lowest bids for every subcontract work added to $13.01 million, a difference of 8 percent.

"I've always told my that cost estimates are 5 to 10 percent [plus or minus]," Jones said.

Alcombright was also hesitant to lay blame on the out-of-town companies that estimated the costs.

"I don't think I'm at a point where I want to point any fingers," he said.

Though several subcontract bids were under estimate, glaring mismatches on electrical work -- a $2.43 million estimate and a $3.17 million low-bid -- painting, and glasswork left officials questioning why the projections were off.

Jones said she's "nervous" about the next bid, but has been encouraged by the excitement of contractors bidding on the work.

"I still think there's still a great amount of hope for the project," Alcombright said. "We're not done yet."

To reach Adam Shanks:
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