BURLEY • The Cassia County School District is short a staggering $15 million for proposed construction projects in Burley and Declo, officials announced Tuesday.
The district passed a $37 million construction bond levy in March after voters struck it down three times. The money was slated for new school construction and improvements across the district, but officials learned about 10 days ago they woefully underestimated what it would cost to complete the projects pitched to voters.
The district is blaming architect Hal Jensen of Pocatello, who provided cost estimates as the district was preparing the bond earlier this year. District leaders said they’re considering legal action against Jensen, an architect since 1995 who has worked on other large-scale school projects in Idaho.
“I had some elements that were underestimated,” Jensen told the Times-News. “I feel sick.”
The district now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of either having to drastically scale back its building plans in Burley and Declo or turn to voters and ask for additional money. Neither option appealed to school board members or the citizens’ committee that worked with Jensen to draw up cost estimates for the building projects.
But many involved in the bond seemed to favor another bond request, likely to come this spring if the school board approves the move by January.
“I’m a really simple guy,” said Darrin Moon, a committee member. “You tell the truth and go ask for more money.”
The shortage was discovered after the district hired a new architect, LKV Architects of Boise, which discussed the issue with construction management team hired for the project, Starr Corp. of Twin Falls. The citizens’ committee was briefed about the shortfall Tuesday before the regularly scheduled school board meeting. District officials were slow to get to the point in the meeting and seemed almost reluctant to utter the steep $15 million number.
District spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield described the district’s situation as “absolutely devastating.”
“We’re not sitting on this,” she said. “We’re trying to be transparent and figure out what to do.”
How it Happened
The district has worked with Jensen on prior projects and felt he was providing sound figures for estimates as the district prepared the bond, Board Chairman Ryan Cranney said.
But, Cranney said, the district did not have $400,000 for blueprints prior to the passage of the bond, so it relied on conceptual drawings and the advice from professionals, namely Jensen.
The costs were based on a “general elementary school size. And when we got down to specifics it ended up being more money,” Cranney said.
A lot more.
At Mountain View Elementary School, for example, the entire budget for the remodeling project was eaten up by the heating and air conditioning system, Cranney said.
Preliminary figures show that Declo and Burley’s proposed new elementary schools were underestimated by 30 to 40 percent along with the other projects in those cities. Fees and permits were also miscalculated, Critchfield said.
The bond amount allotted to Burley was $14.8 million with $8.4 million going to build the new elementary school. Declo’s allotment is $6.8 million with $5.2 million earmarked for the new elementary school. The district is still crunching the numbers, but it appears the Burley school was underestimated by about $1.5 million and the Declo school by $2 million, the district spokeswoman said.
“I don’t think there was any attempt by (Jensen) to mislead the district,” Critchfield said. “We just got very poor advice.”
Jolene Graham, a bond committee member, said the group asked hundreds of questions to Jensen, including if money was estimated for parking lots, playground equipment and security cameras. Jensen assured them there was plenty.
“We are basically furious,” Graham said. “We feel bad for (Jensen), but this was a huge mistake and we feel like he needs to be taken off all the projects.”
If there is a silver lining, it’s that the shortfall likely won’t affect money for school projects already underway, including construction at schools in Malta and Oakley. Still, those projects wouldn’t have materialized under the money allocated from the bond; it took donations from local residents to keep the projects on budget.
The bond money for the Burley and Declo projects has not yet been spent. The question now is whether to use what’s remaining for smaller-scale improvements or turn to voters again for more cash.
“This puts the community in a difficult situation,” said Cranney, the board chairman. “We will either have to cut projects short, cheapen the projects or look at coming up with more money from the community. I’m extremely disappointed.”
Critchfield said the new architects and construction manager will go over the projects by line item and present the information to the board on Dec. 16. The board will then decided to proceed with construction using the available money and cut back on the projects or ask voters for another construction bond issue.
The patrons’ committee indicated support for asking voters for the additional money. If the district decides on another construction bond election, it could take the issue to voters in 2016 in March, May, August or November. The district would likely prefer March, Critchfield said.
If the board decides to move forward using the available money, the Burley and Declo elementary schools will still be built, “in some form,” Critchfield said.
There will be fewer classrooms, and there is no money for parking lots or playgrounds. The board will also decide how to proceed with the other projects once it receives more detailed information.
None of the $1.5 million contingency fund has been used yet.
“No one feels worse than those of us on this committee. We worked so hard and built a bridge of trust in the community. Those needs are still there and those problems are not going to go away,” Graham said. “It’s not acceptable to us to not take care of those needs or to build smaller schools than what we need.”