The construction area outside Lyseth Elementary School in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Roger Duncan)
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In 2017, Portland voters approved borrowing $64 million for the expansive renovation of Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot, and Reiche elementary schools.

But higher-than-expected construction costs – and some hidden costs not anticipated in original estimates – have increased the price tag for the project, leaving a $41 million funding gap.

Construction began at Lyseth Elementary in June 2019. But it became clear when subcontractor bids came in $2 million over budget that the planned scope of work would have to be reduced. A new gym was built, but not to LEED specifications, and plans to replace doors and upgrade the exterior, ventilation system and driveways were dropped.

A School Board committee came to the conclusion last week that meaningful improvements were still possible at the other three schools without having to ask voters for more money. It determined that reducing the scope of work equally among the schools or conforming to the original vision of the project was less important than using the remaining funds to address the biggest problems affecting learning and safety throughout the three schools. 

The original vision for the reconstruction projects, called “Buildings for Our Future,” was developed in 2013 over hundreds of hours of discussions through community charettes, public meetings, and conversations with parents and teachers. It involved new gyms, new music and art rooms, abatement and remediation, and upgrades to lighting, telecom systems, and more, for five schools.

The entrance of Reiche Elementary School in Portland, which needs a security update. (Portland Phoenix/Roger Duncan)

The City Council delayed approving bond requests from the School Board on the chance that some work would receive state funding. One school (the former Fred P. Hall Elementary, now Amanda C. Rowe Elementary) received state funding, but the others did not. The council approved the $64 bond measure for the remaining four schools in March 2017. 

Harriman & Associates, an Auburn-based architecture firm, was hired to determine what the scope of work that voters approved would cost to build today, and came up with $105 million. Harriman also estimated the costs if the scope of work at Presumpscot, Reiche, and Longfellow were reduced in the same way Lyseth’s was, but even that would require $21 million more in funding. 

In a presentation to the District Building Advisory Committee Feb. 27, Harriman principal Lisa Sawin said that the increased costs came from unanticipated inflation in the construction industry, delays in getting the funding request to a referendum, and costs not accounted for in original estimates.

When Harriman reviewed the proposed renovations it found that some of the new construction would trigger requirements for structural analysis and would potentially require bringing the schools up to current code. It recommended reconsidering the placement of such new construction so it doesn’t trigger those requirements. 

“Essentially, that’s the money you’re never going to see in the programs of the school,” she said. “It will be in the walls and not realized as program space… So that high level (scope) didn’t always account for the real impact of those additions.”

The School Board can consider requesting more funding from voters, but that would take time and the board fears costs would continue to soar.

In July 2016, when the board made its initial request for funding the four schools, it argued in a memo to the council that the schools “can no longer wait” because construction costs were expected to rise up to 4 percent per year. However, construction costs actually increased more than that, between 5 percent and 8 percent each year from 2016-2020, according to a report by Harriman. 

Sawin presented three options for sticking to the remaining $47 million in the budget.

The first option would prioritize improving classroom spaces, leaving out new gyms. Another prioritizes building new gyms, separating them from shared cafeterias. A third would renovate the existing gyms and build new cafeterias. Each school had a different scope of work for each option, except for Reiche’s, which was the same across all three options. 

The committee entertained the idea of mixing and matching the scopes of work for each school in the three options proposed by Harriman. 

Walls, elevator, new classrooms

Representatives of each school advocated for what their schools needed most. 

Renee Serio, a teacher leader at Reiche Elementary School, said walls for classrooms and a secure entrance are her main priorities. The school has an open-concept layout. 

“Putting up walls is what we want, loud and clear,” Serio said. “You need walls to be able to hear someone teach you English and be able to repeat back and learn things. You need walls to be able to comprehend what people are saying to you. And we know that’s a barrier when 43 percent of our students are learning English.”

She also said it would be a “huge mistake,” to renovate and not include a secure entrance. 

Committee member Paul Stevens also urged that secure entry be added to Reiche’s scope, which he called “one of the worst situations in terms of entry at any of the … schools.” 

Serio also suggested fixing leaks in the roof, particularly the part that covers a path between Reiche’s two buildings. When it rains, she said, they put plastic cups all around that area to catch drips.

Terry Young, principal of Longfellow school, said interior renovations and an elevator for handicap access is a higher priority than new construction. 

“In the interior, as it now exists, there are so many needs that if we were to start adding on, it just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. 

He prioritized asbestos abatement, electrical work, flooring, lighting, exterior brickwork, and replacing windows that don’t open. 

Portland’s Presumpscot Elementary School, where cones mark deteriorating sidewalks. (Portland Phoenix/Roger Duncan)

Angela Taylor, principal at Presumpscot, said the main priority there would be building new classrooms to replace modular classrooms in use outside the building.  

She said she thought plans for a new gym and a full renovation of the front entrance could be dropped, but that a separate cafeteria is a necessity.

“Because we’re such a small school, when you use a gym for eating, it really makes it hard to schedule,” she said.

Taylor also suggested renovating some “dead spaces” in the school that could be put to better use, and upgrading classrooms to be better equipped to support teaching science, technology, engineering, and math. While some schools have whiteboards, she said, Presumpscot classrooms still use chalkboards.  

“I don’t think we need a full (renovation),” she said, “but I do think we need to go through and say ‘Hey, how can we make this a little closer to the 21st century with the money that we have?’” 

The committee found that the priorities suggested by the school representatives most closely matched the “classrooms” option proposed by Harriman, with the addition of a secure entrance at Reiche. 

Committee and School Board member Emily Figdor, who was participating in the meeting by phone, suggested that the focus of the renovations should be on 21st-century classrooms and life safety improvements. 

Concerns were raised that this would be straying too far from the initial goals of the Buildings for Our Future vision that was supported by voters in the 2017 referendum. 

“There’s a chance that to really fulfill the will of the people, we’re going to have to spend more money,” committee member Brad Post said. 

Member Jessica Marino responded that meaningful improvements can still be made that impact education with the money available. 

“Those of us who’ve been in this for a long time, (know) the costs are just going to go up,” Marino said. “More money would be great. I just personally don’t want to open that door again. I don’t think anyone’s going to want to give us more money, and I don’t want to delay this any more than it already is.” 

School Board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson agreed and said she was excited about the recommendation. “I first heard we’ll do a fresh coat of paint, but this is actually much more than that,” Thompson said. “This is still really affecting teaching and learning.” 

Inside Reiche Elementary School in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Roger Duncan)

The committee agreed that it would recommend to the board a scope of work “in the spirit of” the classroom-focused option. It charged Harriman with working with the schools to reset priorities with a focus on modern classrooms and safety improvements and to develop new estimates based on those priorities to bring back to the committee. 

There was some disagreement among School Board members about whether the full board must approve the committee’s recommendation. Thompson said that because the direction had changed so substantially that it should go to the elected officials for approval.  

The committee tentatively planned to meet before the board’s March 17 meeting to finalize its recommendation.

Questioning cost escalation

At-large committee member Jay Norris, a professional project manager, confronted Sawin after her presentation over the increased estimates, saying he was “embarrassed” for Harriman.

“How did you overshoot?” he asked.

Sawin explained that Oak Point Associates developed the original scope of work and the estimates and that Harriman was hired to update the estimates and was working with the committee to define a new scope.

Norris asked to see the details behind the estimates, such as work plans and work schedules, so the committee could review them to suggest ways they could be tightened up to reduce costs.

Sawin said that those will not be developed until the committee determines how the new scope should depart from the original. But she said Harriman has done much of the detailed work for the original Buildings for Our Future scope, and that could be used once a new scope is defined. 

“We’re not reinventing the wheel by any means,” she said. 

Several other committee members said Harriman has been honest and transparent and that they had expected costs to go up. 

Longfellow School is one of the Portland elementary schools where planned renovations may be adjusted because of unexpectedly high construction costs. (Portland Phoenix/Roger Duncan)

Alternative approach to school project squashed 

One way the type of detailed scoping and design for the renovation of Portland’s elementary schools could have been developed earlier would have been through a construction-manager-at-risk approach, which is an alternative to the design-bid-build method commonly used in school and public construction.

“What the contractor-at-risk method does is allows us to build a scope hand in hand with the contractor,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said after the Feb. 27 District Building Advisory Committee meeting. “it would have made it much cheaper.”  

But a state law that set up a pilot program extending “alternative delivery options,” including construction-manager-at-risk, to school construction expired in 2016. 

A commission that studied the pilot program reported in 2008 that using the construction-manager-at-risk model benefits districts because the construction manager could provide suggestions of lower-cost products during the design, can generate a detailed scope of work for each subcontractor, and provide information on how the project will be sequenced. 

“A (construction manager) can get cost information from suppliers more readily than an architect can, (and) typically has a much better understanding of the cost implications of specific products than does the normal architect,” the report stated. “All of this information helps the (construction manager) know and control project costs within the budget as it develops the guaranteed maximum price for the project prior to construction.” 

The state approved this approach for a $38.8 million renovation and construction project for Biddeford High School before the pilot program expired. 

In September 2019, Botana applied for a waiver of competitive bidding on the three remaining school construction projects in order to engage a construction manager, based on another state statute that allows waivers to be granted in cases involving unusual circumstances.

The district argued that the construction market in southern Maine – where bids routinely come in high partly due to the shortage of labor – amounts to an unusual circumstance.

The Bureau of General Services countered that circumstances are not unusual when an entire market is experiencing the same level of activity, according to a Nov. 25, 2019, letter denying the request from Elaine Clark, deputy commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. The bureau’s policy, she wrote, is to encourage competition in bidding and the statute was not intended to waive public bidding for multiple school construction projects totaling tens of millions of dollars.

She further stated that the last line of the statute section prohibits waivers when school districts enter two or more contracts for renovations within a six-month period and the total costs exceed $250,000.

Botana resubmitted the request Oct. 31, 2019, to clarify that the district would use a single construction contract to obtain a construction-manager-at-risk, obtained through a competitive process, and would use competitive bidding for all other construction contracts within six months of the construction manager contract date.

But the department denied the revised request because the Legislature did not extend a pilot program that allowed alternative delivery approaches to schools and the circumstances justifying a waiver of competitive bidding were not present.

— Jordan Bailey

Updated March 12, 2020, to clarify that the Legislature failed to extend the pilot program that allowed alternative delivery approaches.