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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

AME construction cost exceeds $10 million, cuts under way

"We need magic and miracles is what I'm hearing you say," responded Manatee County Superintendent Roger Dearing to school board members reviewing the escalating cost of constructing the proposed new Anna Maria Elementary School at a budget workshop held last week.

In September 2003, the board approved a $7.12 million budget for AME's construction project and, since that time, the rising demand of raw materials and labor, cost of steel, concrete and fuel have driven the total cost of the project to $10,040,055.

During the 2003-04 school year, AME's construction team spent several months revising and scaling back the project's inflating budget and managed to meet the board-approved maximum without eliminating items such as a metal roof, Bahama shutters, additional landscaping and an auditorium.

Director of Construction Services Sherry Dowling told the board, "We have done a professional job to provide what we were asked to provide. We've had many, many community meetings at AME and it's a good number for what's on the plan."

"The reality is this project was started in 2001 and part of the frustration is that it has taken so long to get to where we are tonight," said board member Harry Kinnan. "Whatever we need to do, we need to do it."

Kinnan added that the board always knew it was going to build a quality school on the Island that exceeded the average cost of other schools.

Market demands
"We are at a dilemma point," Dearing said. "Construction services and finances are far exceeding any foreseeable budget. It just so happens Anna Maria and King Middle School are the next in line, but we can envision the same problem for every school in the pipeline after them. This is a problem we all have to solve."

Both Dearing and Dowling reported to the board that in the past 10 months steel prices have risen 88 percent and the demand for cement is so high that it's being rationed. Dowling said the district has to schedule concrete pours weeks in advance and Dearing added that projects were being limited to 50 cubic yards of concrete a day at hours that have disrupted neighborhoods.

Both noted that the construction market has yet to feel the impact of recent hurricane damage in neighboring counties. Dearing pointed out that Charlotte County will have to rebuild eight schools in three years.

"This is a train wreck getting ready to happen and a construction increase like this is enough to stop a train from running altogether," Dearing said.

Manatee County's own capital plan to build additional schools was also cited as a contributing cause to the demand on the construction market. Bill Horton, assistant superintendent of schools, said the district has a well-planned building program that is more in tune with the teacher, student and community needs than ever before.

Dowling added that the district's capital plan is ambitious and the need for new schools makes them a large player in the market. In addition to AME, there are already eight other schools slated for new construction and three needing renovations - with more coming online.

The rising costs are not anybody's fault, but Dearing stressed that the district needs to make "meaningful, conservative" decisions, otherwise there may not be funds for school projects slated for construction at the tail end of its five-year capital plan.

AME was supposed to be among the first projects addressed after county voters approved a half-cent on the dollar sales tax increase in May 2002. The 15-year sales tax increase was specifically passed to fund school construction projects.

Dearing cautioned that the funds generated from the sales tax only give the district the means to have the facilities to house the same number of students in 2006 as they did in 2001. The added facilities give the district the means to meet the class size amendment, which reduces student-per-teacher ratios.

AME's status
The bottom line for AME is that items such as its metal roof, Bahama shutters and auditorium are fair game for the chopping block.

Dearing told the construction team to trim the total budget to $8 million and to present a line-item analysis of items proposed to be cut by Friday, Sept. 24. Hayes said the construction team would meet Wednesday, Sept. 22, to consider its options.

Representing the Island community at the construction team meetings are Michael Pierce, Don Schroder, who was asked to replace Gina Duvall, whose daughter graduated from AME last year, and Suki Janisch, as the school advisory council president, has been asked to take the place of Maria Facheris.

Dearing told the construction team to have a contract ready for consideration at the first board meeting in October.

Representing the teachers, Kathy Grandstad spoke to the board emphasizing the need for immediate attention to the facilities. She reminded the board that faculty members who have stayed at AME for many years feel they have been neglected.

"We have an air conditioning system from the 1970s, doors that have to be locked down from the outside, buckets to catch leaks in our rooms. We don't care about the style of roof or Bahama shutters," said Grandstad. "We want a safe school for our children and we don't want you to forget us."

Board members discussed several options to trim the cost to the district, including soliciting community support in raising funds for the desired amenities and aesthetics.

Board member Larry Simmons questioned whether the auditorium could be added at a later date, or if the community would be willing to raise the funds. "It's a big bite to take when we have other promises to keep."

Dowling estimated the cost of the auditorium to be $1.4 million and admitted that the team never considered omitting it from the plans.

Board member Walter Miller suggested that since the auditorium is an attraction for the community, perhaps additional funding could be available from the department of community services.

"Bottom line is we need a school that is educationally sound and something the community can be proud of," Miller said. "A school reflects a community and the value of education to that community."

Board member Frank Brunner said he believes that at the end of the day, the district needs to provide a "safe, efficient, effective facility."

Hayes reminded the board that AME has been on the district's list for several years and when its time came for new construction or renovation approximately eight years ago, it was bypassed and funds were spent on a school with more critical needs.

"This is a neighborhood school. They have already raised money for their own technology lab and for their own playground," Kinnan said. "The Island community has already done more that what they should have had to do."

AME will get a new school, the board agrees, and it wants to see the project move forward without further delays.

The next school board meeting will be a 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 27.