Can the committee charged with remodeling New Lebanon Elementary School in Byram find a way of doing so without incurring a price too high for the town finance board?
Steve Walko, chairman of the New Lebanon Building Committee, said his panel has spent this week addressing that question, in preparation for next Tuesday’s meeting with the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s Budget Committee.
“I think our job is to value-engineer this building to the point where we have taken into consideration the cost to the taxpayer and the benefit to the community,” he said. “We have to unturn every stone, including the current size of the building, the materials used, and the manner in which we use space.”
Walko’s comments follow BET Budget Committee deliberations last week over the town budget in which New Lebanon School took center stage. Budget Committee members expressed displeasure at the fact that in a matter of weeks, the estimated cost around the project for rebuilding the aging school had risen from $31 million to $40 million.
“If we allow this to go forward, nothing else we do will get the price down,” Budget Committee chairman Jim Lash said. “This doesn’t get better, this gets worse.”
The question Lash asked centered on the anticipated size of a new building, 62,000 square feet, and the use of design elements such as finishes that will factor into the final project cost.
Walko said Monday his committee will be working on those project elements.
“We have a week,” he said. “We have a construction manager [Gilbane, Inc., brought on last month]. We are very much in the stage of designing a building. We are still working at the schematic designs. You tend to accumulate savings as the design gets more refined.”
Walko added the savings could take the form of such things as reusing items from the old school, such as kitchen equipment. He added that the difference in price between the former figure of $32.8 million and the current one of $40 million is not as sharp as some believe.
He noted the additional costs of modular classroom units as well as rehabilitating a town athletic field adjacent to the school property on William Street. The former was added to the project as a condition of acceptance by the Board of Selectmen, who cited safety concerns, while the latter was requested by the town Parks and Recreation commissioner, Joseph Siciliano.
“We are effectively at $37 million right now, and get to $40 million with the modular and the field,” Walko said. “I don’t think it’s such a wide gap.”
Walko agreed that the BET may not see the issue the same way, and said his committee will work to make sure they stay within the education specifications they are given.
Even those may be questionable to some on the BET. Discussing the size of the proposed rebuilt school, substantially enlarged in size from that of the current structure to take into account New Lebanon’s presumed function as a magnet school, Lash shook his head.
“Based on that design, and those cost estimates, they aren’t being cost-sensitive,” he said. “The price they have right now, they build schools in New York for less money on a per-square-foot basis.”
Others on the BET were more supportive. “We have a pressing need for a new school, and a significant chunk of that will be paid by the state,” BET member John Blankley said. Noting the expense of a new school at the New Lebanon site would be higher because it is being built on a ravine, he added: “It wouldn’t be the first time a project cost us a bit more.”
But that seemed just the issue for BET members with long memories of past overruns. Lash also noted that state reimbursement for rebuilding the school is no sure thing.
Asked what he expects from the BET next week, Walko was noncommittal: “It all depends on the amount of work we do between now and then. History shows the BET makes decisions based on facts, not innuendo. If we can articulate how we scrubbed numbers, and justify the space and design elements, they will seriously consider our request. If we can’t justify them, we either shouldn’t go forward, or we will be in for a difficult time.”