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New school keeps a rising bottom line

While costs keep going up for Nature Coast Technical High, the focus stays on building the right school.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- In 1998, it was supposed to be a $33.8-million school.

But in 2002, less than halfway through its construction, the school now costs $40.8-million. And the price could go higher.

Even so, a School Board that grumbles at parents who bounce $20 checks for photo packages is mostly content with the progress of Nature Coast Technical High School, which costs 20 percent more now than what voters were told it would in 1998.

Why are board members so calm in the face of a project that's $7-million beyond its original budget?

For one thing, it has been their choice to add most of the pieces that have bumped up the cost. For another, an overflowing pot of sales tax money -- which can be spent nowhere else but on the high school -- has been so ample that it has eliminated the need for hard choices.

And when Nature Coast Tech opens its doors 18 months from now, board members still expect that it will be paid for -- a far cry from the debts that still remain from loan-financed schools built in the 1980s.

Still, the escalation of the cost of Nature Coast Tech hasn't gone unnoticed.

School Board member Jim Malcolm expressed concern recently that every time the sales tax revenue estimate goes up, district staffers seem to assign an equal portion to the school's budget.

And, in an election year, the project's growth promises to be an issue.

School Board candidate Jim Polk said the climbing costs show that the current board lacks accountability. Stephen Galaydick, a former board member who may get back in the ring, puts it more bluntly: "They seem to be squandering the money as fast as it can be raked."

Prepare for college or work

As the debate begins, the construction of the school is in full swing.

Next door to Chocachatti Elementary on California Street, south of Brooksville, workers continue to piece together a school that's so big its interior courtyard will be the size of a football field.

At present, plans call for the school to have an opening-day capacity of nearly 1,100 students, with the option to expand to more than 1,500.

There will be debate in the next few months over whether the school should start with 600 students, as principal Tizzy Schoelles prefers, or the 900 that Malcolm envisions. Either way, every student who walks through the door will help ease crowding at Central and Springstead high schools.

Plans call for the school to have an assortment of vocational and technical labs, in addition to serving as a regular high school for students not interested in vocational instruction. Each lab will be stocked with equipment that has been described either as "state of the art" or equal to "industry standards," be it in auto mechanics or digital publishing.

The school's mission will be to prepare students for college or to give them the skills to enter the workplace the day after they graduate. Some could do both.

To be sure, the nature of the vocational labs -- some of which will cost $200,000 -- make this school more expensive than a purely academic campus. But that's been the expectation all along.

"I think that everybody knew that when we said "state of the art,' that this was not going to be a cheap school," Malcolm said.

A 'guesstimate'

When they went to voters in 1998, School Board members and then-superintendent John Sanders kept repeating one number -- $33.8-million -- as what they expected to have to spend and what they expected the school to cost.

John Druzbick, who was board chairman in 1998, says now that $33.8-million was a "guesstimate." And, he admits, it wasn't clear then exactly what $33.8-million would buy.

Soon after voters approved the sales tax, Sanders brought together a committee of educators and business people to decide what should go into the school.

Eventually, John Pehling, point man for the architectural firm Reynolds, Smith and Hills, was asked to turn the dream into a working document.

Pehling was well aware of the district's budget, but he says he was never asked to stay within it. Instead, his job was to come up with a master plan that incorporated everything.

Such an approach is typical, Pehling said. It doesn't mean the dream will be built right away. Often, he said, schools are built in phases. "It's smart to think about your whole vision and to get it on paper," he said.

In March 2000, Pehling delivered to the School Board drawings for a school that -- if built to its full glory -- would cost more than $39-million. It was a spectacular two-story building, with brick walls, lots of windows and a six-sided design. From the air, it would look like a squashed doughnut.

At the time, school officials had no way to pay for it. But no one asked Pehling to go back and scale down the dream.

Instead, district officials asked Schoelles, who was appointed in May as the school's principal, to look at what parts of the dream she could live without.

"The first time I meet the architect, the first time I meet the builder, the first time I meet the people involved in this project, I'm told I have to cut $7-million," Schoelles said.

The low point

By August 2000, Schoelles and the architects came back with a slimmed-down proposal that took a giant bite out of the squashed doughnut -- an entire classroom wing.

Gone, too, were the band room, chorus room and theater. Lighted stadiums for football, soccer, baseball and softball were reduced to mere practice fields dependent on sunlight.

Still intact were more than 1,200 classroom seats, the vocational labs, the gymnasium and core elements such as the lunchroom, library and administrative building.

That, it turns out, was the low point for the dream that is becoming Nature Coast.

A few months later, Sanders returned to the board with the happy news that the sales tax was churning out revenue at an astounding clip.

At first, he said there might be an extra $3.5-million to spread around. Later, he said maybe $5.1-million.

From there, no one talked about sticking to the $33.8-million budget. Nor did anyone discuss whether it was feasible to call an early halt to the sales tax, a possibility Druzbick once mentioned during the 1998 campaign.

Instead, Sanders and Schoelles made the case that few students would want to come to Nature Coast if it couldn't offer the performing arts, no matter what the crowding at the other schools. From the start, board members have wanted the school to fill up by itself so they won't have to make the politically painful decision to redraw attendance zones.

Less than a year after taking a hatchet to the dream, the band room, chorus room and theater were restored to the budget at a cost of $4.3-million.

Building detours

While most School Board members now say they are comfortable with those decisions, two other costly rabbit trails have given them some concern.

In March 2001, Sanders convinced the board to cut two vocational programs from the school and fill the space with the district's print shop.

In his mind, students could learn about printing on equipment the district already owned.

Schoelles objected mightily, telling Sanders the print shop would eat up space while offering few opportunities for students. She objected louder when the building had to be enlarged to accommodate the print shop, negating any equipment savings.

When Sanders left the district in September, she immediately asked his successor, Wendy Tellone, to stop the print shop move. Tellone and the board agreed. How much the print shop detour cost depends on whom you talk to.

District finance director Carol MacLeod says it added $638,000 to Nature Coast's cost. Pehling, the architect, estimates it at closer to $1-million.

Either way, board member Sandra Nicholson says it was a bad idea. "I blew it on that one," she said. "I let Dr. Sanders talk me into that."

Then, last fall, board members were handed the bill for a $1.6-million chiller plant -- the core machinery needed to provide air conditioning to the school. It came out of the blue, as far Nicholson was concerned, because she and other board members assumed the chiller plant was part of the original $33.8-million budget.

Spend it or lose it

As it stands now, school officials expect to have $41.3-million to spend on the school, when revenue from the sales tax and state funding are combined. All but $2.3-million of the state money must be spent on the new school, according to MacLeod.

The sales tax money is restricted because the 1998 sales tax ballot question mentioned only the high school as a target of the revenue. Most of the state money comes from bond sales that specifically identified the new school as the lone recipient of Hernando's share.

The biggest remaining question seems to be whether the sales tax can generate enough money by the time it expires at the end of 2003 to pay for the final classroom wing, which was never restored.

That seems unlikely, given that the final wing could cost $4.5-million. Already, board members are being tempted to set aside the $2.3-million in flexible money for a new elementary school.

Either way, board members and school officials say they should not be faulted for using every dime the sales tax has blessed them with. Despite its expanding waistline, the school is still on par with budgets for other vocational schools in the state, they say.

In fact Pehling, the architect, said the $125-per-square-foot cost of Nature Coast Tech is less than some purely academic high schools. The state Department of Education had no numbers to back up either claim. The latest numbers they offer -- data on 1999 construction contracts -- show that six of the 13 contracts awarded that year were for more than $45-million.

Comparisons with Nature Coast are difficult, however. Nature Coast is smaller than many of the other schools, but its contract was awarded more than a year later. It also is not clear which are devoted to academics and which have a vocational flavor.

All in all, board members say they are confident Hernando County will get a good school at a fair price.

"We projected (the revenue) at $33.8-million. Now that we are projecting $41.3-million, the choice is either to spend that money or give it back to the state," said board member Robert Wiggins. "We owe it to our constituents to build the best school we can."

-- Robert King covers education and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

The $40.8-million question

Since 1998, when voters approved a half-cent sales tax to provide money for a new high school, the estimated cost of the school has grown by 20 percent. How did it happen?

$33.8-MILLION

1998: As they waged their campaign for public support of the half-cent sales tax, school officials repeatedly said the facility would cost $33.8-million. In their literature, it was referred to as the "estimated total cost." Superintendent John Sanders, finance director Vince Benedict and School Board members said it was a "turnkey" number that covered everything from lab equipment to furniture.

MARCH 2000: Architect John Pehling unveiled a design concept for the school he called "an exciting piece of architecture" -- a six-sided building that from the air would resemble a squashed doughnut. If fully built, it would cost $39-million, but that did not seem to be an option. Graydon Howe, the district's facilities director, said, "Something's got to go."

$34.2-MILLION PLUS

AUGUST 2000: To stick close to the original budget, the conceptual design was pared down. One of the building's six sides was lopped off -- trimming about 270 student seats. Also removed was the chorus room, auditorium and money for game-ready athletic stadiums. All told, nearly $10-million was cut from the original design.

NOVEMBER 2000: Superintendent John Sanders said the sales tax revenue was coming in at a faster clip than anyone expected. He said there could be $39-million to spend, nearly $5-million beyond the original estimate.

MARCH 2001: The board agreed to a design change that eliminated two labs -- veterinary science and turf management -- while adding a new print production lab. It was sure to increase the building's cost, but officials were not sure how much. Estimates were between $400,000 and $800,000.

$39-MILLION

JUNE 2001: The School Board agreed to include the band room, chorus room and theater. New sales tax estimates convinced members they would easily have more than $39-million to spend.

AUGUST 2001: School Board members were surprised to learn that they must approve money for a chiller plant -- the machinery needed to provide the building's air conditioning. Board members said they thought that would have been included in the original cost of the building. Estimated cost: $1.6-million.

$40.8-MILLION

JANUARY 2002: The new chiller plant, a reversal of an earlier design change affecting vocational labs and the architect's fees associated with the changes bumped the price to $40.8-million. From Election Day 1998, the cost has increased by $7-million. However, so have estimated revenues from the sales tax. All told, officials say there will be at least $41.3-million to spend.

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