RE1J school expansion cost estimates increase $14M

Increasing to $115,189,000, but won’t impact taxpayers

By Kendra Walker

Despite a 3-2 split vote, the Gunnison Watershed (GWSD) school board on Monday authorized the bond program executive committee for the school facilities expansion and improvement project to continue with updated schematic design estimates that have come in more than $14 million higher than the original conceptual budget. The increase in budget will not impact taxpayers due to bond premiums and interest the district has secured. 

During the school board meeting, team members from GWSD’s owner’s representative Artaic Group presented updated budget numbers based on the project’s schematic designs from the district’s architect TreanorHL. 

“The pricing was quite large and over and above our budgets,” explained Chris Guarino of Artaic. “It’s about 10 to 15% over your conceptual budget.” Guarino presented a modified conceptual budget increase by $14,189,000 for a total of $115,189,000, compared to the original conceptual budget of $101 million.

For Crested Butte Community School (CBCS), the schematic design budget estimates came in at $64,350,145 compared to the original $55 million estimate.

Guarino explained that the increases were due to inflation, which has impacted multiple school district projects across the state over the last several years. “Unfortunately, the conceptual designs and budgets that you have from a couple years ago cost more today,” he said. The original conceptual master plan estimate of $101 million was largely developed in the fall of 2020 and used to pass the bond passed by voters in 2022. 

“We tried to as a team be disciplined and trim the fat and focus on delivering to you estimates that deliver your bond promises,” said Guarino. “We’re focusing on what’s the best scope of work,” without taking away square footage or classrooms and still delivering on bond promises. “This is strictly an estimate so we can educate the design to make sure that when construction documents are presented, we are within your budget.”

He continued, “We do believe you have the opportunity to allocate additional funds to the scope of work without costing your voter base additional dollars. We hope you’ll allow the project team to continue, and increase the budget.”

The team explained that looking at funding sources, GWSD has secured $95,000,000 through the bond sale and $11,939,000 in bond premiums. Due to high interest rates, it is projected to secure $8 million in bond interest and $250,000 in e-rates. The district is also pursuing two BEST grants through the Colorado Department of Education for potential additional funding not included in the estimated budget. 

Former board member and former bond executive committee member Dave Taylor argued that the anticipated bond premium and estimated interest on bond proceeds should be returned to taxpayers. “I’ve advocated for anything over $101 million to go back to the taxpayers,” he said, noting how narrow the bond passed by voters on the November 2022 ballot. “A lot of our community did not want to spend this money on our schools.”

Taylor also didn’t agree with the numbers presented and had different calculations on the contingency rate increases. “Those numbers need more analysis. We need better answers. We need more work on this cost estimate.” However, superintendent Leslie Nichols and board treasurer Mark Vanderveer disagreed with Taylor’s calculations. 

Board member Anne Brookhart expressed concern with the numbers, especially with the high possibility of construction costs continuing to increase. “It’s just concerning to see the prices, especially for Crested Butte Community School that’s already so much more…so what happens when we don’t have enough to do that without seeing another 15% increase? It just feels a little bit premature for me to be all in. This is the only chance that we have for the architects to redesign. There are a lot of creative ways to cut costs without cutting square footage,” she said.

“The inflationary amounts are very high and it’s unfortunate,” said board president Tyler Martineau. “The bottom line is that we had a conceptual design estimate of $101 million and now we have a schematic design estimate of $115 million to deliver the scope that voters voted for a year and a half ago. Regardless of the inflation and percentage increases, the question is ultimately, what do we deliver to voters? A $101 million project or deliver the scope that they voted for?”

“We’ve been entrusted with millions of taxpayer dollars. We are accountable to our taxpayers and it’s a part of my job that I hold very dear and important,” said Nichols. “The voters approved a $95 million dollar bond, meaning that we could go into debt $95 million dollars and that’s exactly what we’ve done, not a penny more than what we promised voters…We are going to fulfill every promise that we made to the voters in the bond language without fail. It is my commitment. It is your commitment as a board that we would never disrespect that promise that we made to the voters. We happened to get lucky on market day and we happen to be in an inflationary environment, which means that we have greater revenue than we anticipated.”

She continued, “My next commitment besides to the taxpayers is to kids and the future of this community. If we do not spend every penny which we are lucky enough to have in this special moment, because it is very unusual for a school district to have some unexpected funds, and if we don’t invest that in this community and in our children and in our families, I’m not doing my job. I urge you to vote in the affirmative on this action item tonight to entrust the executive committee to proceed with the schematic designs. It is for generations’ worth of kids and families in this valley.”

“I think the promise we made is that it will cost taxpayers no more than $95 million,” said Vanderveer. “I’m concerned with pulling back the scope now only to have to go higher with potential costs. I would really not want to reduce the scope or square footage of this.”

“I think we owe the voters and the students in the community the most bang for the buck,” said board member Jody Coleman, making a motion to continue with updated schematic design estimates.

“I believe our first commitment is to the children of this school district, the students. Our second commitment is to the taxpayers, and that’s to deliver the bond program to them that we said we would,” said Martineau. “If I voted to reduce that scope and give that money back, my constituents would be so disappointed in me given that the district has the money. This takes away nothing from the taxpayers at all. My commitment is to do everything I can to complete this scope of work.”

Board member Mandy Roberts voted against the move. “I don’t believe we are giving the students injustice by being frugal,” she said. “I will always vote in favor of the taxpayers. I still think we need more time to think about this.”

Brookhart also voted against the motion. “I do think we should spend the accumulated funds, I’m not trying to give money back, but this is our last chance contractually to make the architects’ designs to budget. I know how construction projects tend to get over budget once they’re actually doing the construction. My concern is that if we hit this budget, we won’t be able to deliver on all the projects.”

However, the 3-2 vote passed to authorize the bond program executive committee to continue with updated schematic design estimates. 

Artaic plans to present the next cost estimates with finalized design documents in early May. 

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