April 26, 2004, 6:45 P.M.
The Devil's In the Details: I have read with interest the recent articles and statements about the school building program. As one of the architects of the current model, I am concerned that the process has gotten off-track.
The Laconia school district facilities plan is rooted in the needs assessment, known as the City Wide Facilities Plan. Based on that plan, the school district developed and implemented a successful model for the renovation and expansion of the city’s elementary schools and the replacement of the middle and high schools. Two former committees made well-researched, practical and cost-effective recommendations to the school board for the replacement of the middle and high school facilities on their current sites. These recommendations were incorporated into the district’s CIP plan that was submitted to the city. Despite discussions in the current committee about alternative locations and schedules, those discussions have not been made, or agreed upon by the entire committee, as suggestions or recommendations to the school board, and the school board has not adopted them. Until such action is taken, the committee’s discussions have little force or effect with regard to the current plan.
That being said, the ideas currently being explored in the facilities committee are good and to the extent that the assumptions underlying the existing plan are being tested, scrutinized, or challenged, the exercise is healthy. As I have often said, if an idea can’t stand scrutiny, it’s not a good idea. The current district CIP plan is no exception, even though it was thoroughly vetted by two previous committees of equally committed and dedicated individuals, many of whom serve on the current committee as well.
Several apparent suggestions aimed at changing the existing plan give me pause. First, the idea of relocating the high school to another site and “renovating” the existing high school into a middle school is misleading. The current high school structure (specifically the sections built in the 1920s and 1930s) does not lend itself to “renovation” into anything. The problems that make it more cost effective to tear the high school down and rebuild it exist whether it is used as a high school or a middle school. Second, the building of a high school on a separate site sounds, at first blush, like a great idea. The devil lies in the details, however. There are not a lot of sites in Laconia that will work or that can be acquired, and moving the high school and the Huot Tech Center will greatly increase the cost of the project. Moreover, separating our tech school from the rest of the high school should not be considered for educational, community and economic reasons, too lengthy and complex to be discussed here, but weighty enough to favor a single campus. Add to this the cost of site acquisition, water and sewer extension and the loss of additional property on the tax rolls, and the idea looks less appealing, even if a suitable site is found. I remain convinced that the reconstruction of Laconia High School on its current site, with an urban flavor and architecture evocative of the existing building is, and will remain, the most educationally sound and economically viable option. There are already preliminary drawings showing the viability of this option.
A third concern is the suggestion that, if the schools are to be built separately, the high school should be done first. I strongly disagree. The middle school is the least structurally sound and most in need of replacement. The current plan calls for relocating the new building on the existing site and some very interesting preliminary plans have been put forth for how this could be done. Soils issues and structural concerns with the site can and will be addressed with sound engineering. The middle school site is exceptional for its proximity to the park and the lake and the buildings’s design should integrate it into the environment and should allow for the extensive community use envisioned by the earlier committees. The current plan for overlapping construction schedules is sound and should be followed.
My final, and most significant concern is that the effective and efficient planning, development and design model used to bring the elementary schools on line on time and under budget was intended to be employed in the replacement of the middle and high school facilities. The amount needed to accomplish this work in the first phase is not the $360,000 suggested by the council. It is the $750,000 originally requested by the district. A true and accurate cost projection cannot be made until a plan and schematic design are finalized. The true cost of the project cannot be determined until construction drawings are complete, however, the numbers get increasingly refined as the process develops. By not funding the planning and design phases of the project, the city further delays the project, or worse, impairs the ability to accurately project the true cost.
What is most important in this discussion is that the city gets what it needs, gets the most for its money, and that it does so in the most economically responsible manner. Construction costs are rising and will continue to rise at a rate of about 5% per year. Interest rates are going up. On a $40 million project, we will spend about $2 million this year just to wait.