Architects throw ‘money wrench' in high school plans

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:53

    SPARTA n Architects charged with developing plans to build a proposed high school now say the project has escalated well beyond the $93 million price tag to address the district's overcrowded classrooms and increasing student population. During a presentation at the school board meeting this week, Bill Corfield, an architect with the Spiezle Group, estimated the cost for constructing a 300,000 square-foot building in Station Park behind the existing high school off Route 517 at more than $109.1 million. "There's a misunderstanding that I'm trying to make the building cost more n I'm not," said Corfield, whose firm has already received more than $60,000 for preliminary analysis and is contracted for 5.75 percent of the total cost of building the school. The Trenton-based architectural firm made the specification adjustments based on meetings with high school administrators and teachers prior to the school board's application with the state to build a 250,000 square-foot facility on a location in Station Park, predominantly governed by wetlands and Highlands legislation. Those meetings, the firm insists, caused the school "footprint" to increase by 50,000 square-feet. "I'm not making the building bigger — our building is being made bigger because the administration is asking us to make the building bigger — it's that simple," he said. "That's why the building is larger that what we were talking about early on." School officials, who have watched the cost for the project spiral from $53 million almost a year ago, were surprised by the new figures and reacted angrily. "The egg on our face as a result of these numbers is paramount," said school board member Richard Sullivan. "We're throwing millions of dollars around like it's nothing." Corfield said the new estimates, "based on New Jersey State Guidelines only," do no include any modifications to existing playing fields, allotments for furniture, intangibles, including Hurricane Katrina, or construction costs that are expected to rise each day the project is delayed. The architects said initial costs had considered an enrollment of 1,400 students at $225 per square-foot, not the current $250 per square-foot and additional 200 pupils. "We took those numbers to the bank," said school board president David Slavin. "Now, I don't know what numbers I can trust." The board contends that final specifications for the Station Park site were forwarded to the architects in June, before the application with the state was submitted. However, Corfield said the group was not able to analyze and evaluate its new data from the faculty and administrators, and report back to the board until July. "We have finally gotten to a point where we understand how big the building needs to be, but this is the normal process," said Corfield. "Now we come to you (the board) and ask if this is what you want. If the school is too expensive, there are ways to make it less." Kathleen Monks, assistant superintendent for schools curriculum, insinuated that faculty and administrators had presented the architects with nothing more than a wish list for an ideal school. She said no costs were given and no meetings were held since the group had met in March. "We were not in sync with defining the scope of this project, that is where this board has failed," said school board member Paul Johnson. "Some sanity check has to be done; how do you find a piece of land to make a 300,000 square-foot school fit? Shame on us for not questioning what was escalating on this." Now, school officials ponder their next move while waiting for word from the state that will tell them whether or not they can continue with plans to build a new high school in Station Park. "It appears we didn't really understand the process," said school board member Michael Schiavoni. "You don't go public saying you're going to build a castle when you can only build a four-bedroom house." The Department of Environmental Protection had been expected to rule on the district's application to gain exemption from Highlands legislation that governs part of the property planned for development behind the existing high school. The major sticking point for the state before granting the board permission to build appears to be connecting the proposed Station Park location to the high school's existing sewer line. Township planner David Troast said he learned only recently that DEP had changed the procedure for connecting the new high school to the sewer line, even though it runs through Station Park. He said DEP approval to connect to the sewer line could take 1-2 years. "The school board has paid professionals that should know whether a property is within a sewer service area," he said. "I'm not the one driving this project." Troast said the board could gain DEP approval rather easily by moving "an imaginary line" to include Station Park within the sewer service area, because the existing high school already meets requirements for gallonage. "I'm confident the school and township can get that changed," he said. "It just needs to follow a series of events." The board of education submitted a Highlands exemption application on July 1, but the review was not initiated until two weeks later because of a communication failure by the school district to DEP. Sullivan said once the application was accepted for review, the DEP process would take up to four to six weeks. Sullivan said the state is practicing due diligence before making any sign-offs on raw land. He said DEP has addressed everything from the presence of endangered turtles, to ancient Indian remains on site, and the time frames permitting the clearance of land without disturbing bat habitats. Meanwhile, the school board, by its own admission, continues to spin its wheels while awaiting word from the state on the application to build the new high school on land that comprises soccer fields No. 1 and No. 2 in Station Park, and the high school's softball fields. School board members are expected to meet this month with a group of local volunteer experts to review the validity of the architects' new proposed costs. Slavin has said if DEP denies the Station Park application due to environmental restrictions, another piece of land would be pursued. But schools superintendent Thomas Morton has said any new site proposal would require another application with both DEP and the Department of Education, further delaying and complicating the referendum process. Sparta officials were hoping for up to $8-15 million in construction support from the state, but the search for land had taken much longer than expected and delayed the application process deemed critical for obtaining aid, school officials have said. Morton said the goal of any new building remains to provide for curricula redesign and space for additional students throughout the district.