Pittsfield School Building Needs Commission votes in favor of a new Taconic High School


PITTSFIELD -- With some expression of concern about the potential for sticker shock, the School Building Needs Commission voted 16-1 on Monday to pursue an entirely new Taconic High School.

"This is a milestone for this commission and the city of Pittsfield," said co-Chairman Kathleen Amuso after the vote.

The preliminary estimated cost, according to Carl Franceschi, president of the city's design consulting firm, Drumney Rosane Anderson Inc. of Waltham, is approximately $125.5 million, including construction, fees, contingencies and other project costs.

However, that overall figure is likely to change, he said, once the specific school design is developed and after the Massachusetts School Building Authority weighs in on the plan.

The state is expected to provide the bulk of the funding, but some commissioners expressed concern after Franceschi pointed out that the state's share won't reach the maximum 80 percent reimbursement provided for new school construction.

He said that on large school projects, there are always costs that are not covered by the state, such as all of the site work required. Site work is capped at 8 percent of the total cost, Franceschi said, but those costs typically run at least 12 percent of the total.

In addition, the state provides up to $287 per square foot of construction for a school project, but a more realistic estimate judging from recent projects and costs is that it will be closer to $350 to $360 per square foot.

The state square foot figure for reimbursement is reviewed and raised periodically, he said, but it generally "lags reality."

"I'm a little nervous that if we pick one of the [general design] options, we won't know the costs down the road," said commission member and City Council President Melissa Mazzeo, "For years we have been telling people this is 80 percent reimbursable."

Franceschi stressed that the actual costs won't be known until the fall, after the proposal is reviewed and accepted by the MSBA and more detailed schematic designs and cost figures are developed. At that time, the state will specify its reimbursement figure as well.

He added that when each commissioner listed their priorities in terms of a number of project categories, the all-new construction option ranked highest. Categories included energy efficiency, educational flexibility to meet the needs of the future and lower level of disruption during construction.

Based in part on those assessments, DRA recommended the new construction option, which was adopted and will be submitted to the state authority for review in August and September. Development of full schematic plans and cost estimates would follow, and a final decision by the state and a formal agreement on the project and the state reimbursements could come in January.

At that point, the proposal would likely go before the City Council, and if approved, final construction designs would begin.

The commission had considered four building options to replace the 45-year-old Taconic High School, including renovation of the existing building, estimated at roughly $36.2 million; renovations and an addition to the building, $98.2 million; mostly new construction while retaining and renovating the gymnasium and auditorium areas, $124 million; and all new construction, $125.5 million.

The cost difference for Pittsfield between the four options was estimated by commissioners at from $8 to $10 million, with new construction possibly the highest. However, Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon and others said the new, more efficient building and flexibility in meeting educational needs in the future should outweigh the higher initial cost.

Franceschi said just doing renovations at $36.2 million -- which would not receive any state reimbursement -- would merely address capital expenses like a new roof or heating system that the consultants believe will be required within several years.

He said the renovation option is typically prepared for a school project "as a baseline" to show what would be required even without a new school.

Casting the lone vote against a new Taconic was commissioner Ozias "Chuck" Vincelette. He argued that the debt service on a new school "could be north of $2 million" per year for 30 years, and advocated a partial renovation project, which he said would allow Pittsfield to address renovation needs at other city schools as well.

Referencing other aspects of the city's plans for the school, Franceschi said the MSBA has accepted the projection of 920 students for the new Taconic.

Questions were raised about square footage requirements in some sections of the preliminary floor plan, he said, but he said those should be resolved as the planning process moves along.

To reach Jim Therrien:
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