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Construction Costs Keep Rising; Board Tries to Keep a Tight Budget

Candace Braun

Construction costs for Princeton Regional School District during the renovation and expansion of its four elementary schools and middle school is forcing the School Board to pinch pennies to keep the budget from expanding.

From the $17,000 in legal fees created when the district received a restraining order against installing the high school artificial turf, to the overtime custodians put in to clean up construction, adding up to approximately $50,000, the costs are continuing to rise.

Because of these unforeseen costs, Superintendent Claire Sheff Kohn said that some construction projects the Board was willing to postpone in the past, including the roofing at Johnson Park Elementary, must now be moved forward to avoid further escalation of costs for the School District.

"We're going to have to bite the bullet and tell people we can't stop," said Dr. Kohn at a Finance Committee meeting for the School Board on Monday, October 27. She said the roof adhesive materials, which have been said to give off an unpleasant odor, have been tested and were shown to be non-toxic, and therefore construction must continue.

"We can't afford to keep halting work because of the smell," she said. Board Vice President Anne Burns agreed. "We need a week or two to get the roof done [before winter]," she said.

At the last School Board meeting on September 23, the Board told concerned parents and teachers that all roof construction would be stopped when they gave examples of how the roof was affecting the students, including dry throat, coughing, congestion and nausea, as well as debris falling from the roof into the classrooms. They said the roofing would only continue during hours when students would not be in the building.

However, now that costs are rising and the winter weather is nearing and the roofing is not done, Dr. Kohn said it is no longer possible to continue delays.

"We are putting the brakes on in some areas," said Dr. Kohn. "We chose to make this a tight budget year, and we were successful. However, we're going to have to make some changes because of that."

In May 2001, an $81.3 million bond referendum was approved for a multi-year project for improvement projects in all district schools. In October 2002, contract bids were rejected for all the schools, and the Board was sent back to reconfigure construction so that the cost remained inside the budget.

After adding more renovations and less construction to the plan, contract bids were awarded for the elementary and middle schools in January. The high school bids however were still well over budget, and the Board had to reconfigure plans there once again. Contract bids for the high school were sent out a third time in August, and on October 2, a bid was awarded to Ernest Bock and Sons, Inc. for $32.8 million, almost $3 million over budget.

Now, after deciding to take money saved for new desks and other equipment at the elementary schools to balance the high school construction costs, the Board is struggling to stay within budget.

Unforeseen Costs

Unforeseen costs have included the approximate $17,000 in legal fees after a restraining order was filed by LandTek Group of Amityville, N.Y. in May to block the installation of an artificial surface on the PHS football field. LandTek, an unsuccessful bidder on the project, believed American Athletic Court, the contractor hired for the job, did not meet bid requirements.

The temporary restraining order was lifted in August, but not before the Board lost time and money on construction.

Custodial overtime has also been an issue in the schools currently under construction, particularly in the days leading up to the fall school opening. The unforeseen overtime added up to approximately $50,000, said Stephanie Kennedy, business administrator for the district.

Another added cost was the flooding that took place at John Witherspoon Middle School during the wet weather this fall. Design and installation of an engineered bracing system in the basement to protect the existing building held up construction by approximately six weeks.

Other costs came from asbestos testing and pipe and water cleaning at the various schools when problems arose during construction.

Additional asbestos testing and evaluating in the district was voted on at last night's School Board meeting. That will cost $45,000.

More Money Needed

Board member Joshua Leinsdorf suggested the Board ask for more money for another bond referendum to help fund additional construction so that plans are not cheapened.

"I really think the Board needs to ask for more money," said Mr. Leinsdorf.

He said the new wing that is being built on John Witherspoon Middle School will not have air conditioning, which will provide a harsh learning environment for students in warm weather.

He also asked that an additional $500,000 be added to the construction funds for the high school auditorium, so that it will have the proper lighting for student productions. He asked that the amount be an added question for the budget vote in April 2004.

Dr. Kohn tabled the discussion for the Board meeting. "Next year's budget is going to be a challenge," she said. "I think we have to take our priorities into account, as well as the taxpayers.'"

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