Cost on the rise for Lafayette Gym

Ryan McKinnon

WILLIAMSBURG — The projected cost of an auxiliary gym at Lafayette High School has risen as architects face increasing complexities at the site.

HBA Architecture and Interior Design gave the Williamsburg-James City County school district a rough projection of $2.5 million to build the gym last spring. When the James City County Board of Supervisors approved the project in May, the county planned to contribute $1.25 million in bond revenue, the school district would contribute $1 million and Williamsburg would pay the remainder.

At the Williamsburg-James City County School Board meeting last week, the board discussed doubling the school district's contribution by earmarking an additional $1 million from leftover fiscal year 2016 operational funds to the project.

W-JCC's Senior Director of Operations Marcellus Snipes said the cost of a new fire-suppression system and an access road for rescue vehicles were the main factors behind the rising projections.

A "sped-up project"

Until this year, some Lafayette students practiced at the gym at James Blair, which was demolished over the summer as construction on a new middle school at the site begins.

W-JCC Chief Financial Officer Christina Berta said projects the size and scope of the Lafayette gym are normally spread out over a number of years within a Capital Improvement Plan. Design work, including a detailed cost estimate, is typically slated for the first year. Once planners have a realistic cost estimate, they budget it for the following year.

But, due to the demolition at James Blair and the need for practice space for Lafayette students, county supervisors approved funding before final estimates could be obtained.

"This is a sped-up project," Berta said.

James City County Planning Commission Member Robin Bledsoe said that timetable contributes to unanticipated cost increases.

"When you rush a project like this, I am not surprised (at the cost increase)," she said. "When something starts at one price and then it catapults to this grossly different amount, it's very concerning because it's not something that was budgeted for."

Phil Tahey, a financial consultant for nonprofits who lives in Williamsburg and has followed the project closely, said speeding up capital improvement projects usually results in higher costs.

"It comes back to what's the primary objective here — is it to get the auxiliary gym that meets the needs of the students done as soon as possible, or is it to be as prudent as possible?" Tahey said. "It's either time or money. You have to weigh the two."

Bledsoe said school administrators did not consider all the consequences of demolishing James Blair.

"There should have been a Plan B for Lafayette, and there wasn't," she said.

The Lafayette gym was not included in the 10-year capital improvement plan former Superintendent Steve Constantino proposed in November. The school board added the gym in December in the midst of outcry from an organized and vocal group of Lafayette parents who complained about inequity among the district's three high schools.

James City County Planning Commission Member Heath Richardson said although he commended the school board for trying to meet Lafayette's needs, the need for a gym at the school had been obvious for years.

"We were over here at Lafayette jumping up and down saying, 'We need this, and oh, by the way we are going to lose James Blair,' and nobody paid attention to us," Richardson said. "It's the school's responsibility to lay out their capital needs annually."

Richardson said the hurried process is why school administrators are now learning the building will cost more than they anticipated.

"This is not the typical process. Normally you would have a more satisfactory estimate," he said.

"A range of potential costs"

At its meeting on Sept. 20 the school board will discuss its year-end spending plan, but it will need approval from the city and county on how to use the money.

Tahey said, although it is unlikely, the county does not have to fund project.

"They don't have to use that debt for that amount," Tahey said. "They can use the bond offering for (the gym), but they don't have to."

County Administrator Bryan Hill confirmed the board could decide the gym was not a good value and use the bond money elsewhere, but he said the county would be responsible for any incurred design costs.

James City County Supervisor John McGlennon said he did not think the supervisors would be surprised to see the anticipated cost increase.

"I do think we understood that there was a range of potential costs for the auxiliary gym, so the number was probably a bit of a place holder," he said.

McGlennon also said the board was likely to approve the school board's request to use leftover funds from the 2016 fiscal year toward the project.

"Assuming that there is a solid justification, I would think that the board would be supportive," he said. "Typically we are going to use that (leftover) school funding to address capital funding anyway."

Supervisors Michael Hipple, Sue Sadler and Ruth Larson all said they were waiting for more specifics on the project before commenting further.

McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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