DALEVILLE — Botetourt County reserved an extra $2.5 million for construction of the new Colonial Elementary School after bids came in significantly over budget.
The board of supervisors met Tuesday and unanimously approved the extra financing, but said there were lessons to be learned from the “less than ideal” process. It’s the first time since the mid-1990s that Botetourt has built a new school.
The county first authorized the issuance of $22.5 million in general obligation bonds for the Colonial Elementary project in March 2018. The county’s economic development authority is heading up the project and negotiating with contractors on behalf of the school system.
The project’s total funding amounts to $23.3 million after projected interest earnings. The county has already spent $2.1 million on grading and other contracts. Additional expenses such as furniture, equipment, water quality control, a septic system and inspections will run the county more than $1.4 million, leaving just $19.6 million for the building’s construction.
Two companies bid on the project and the lowest, G&H Contracting in Salem, came in at $22.5 million. Two members of the EDA — John Alderson and John Williamson — started negotiations with the company to bring down the price.
Williamson said the county saved $1.9 million by changing some of the design elements of the building. The roof will be galvanized steel instead of an aluminum roof, which saved about $260,000. The contractor also agreed to give up some overhead costs and do the utility work instead of hiring a subcontractor.
The county also decided to find other financing for things like landscaping, playgrounds, display cases and stage curtains. These negotiations brought the price down to approximately $20 million.
But the school system reported there were about 45 additional students enrolled at Colonial Elementary in the spring. Construction estimates were based on the 370 students enrolled last fall. The original plan for the school would accommodate 480 students, but the school system said it expected families to enroll more children in the future.
With the increase in school population, the project leaders decided the school needed four additional classrooms, a full-size gym and a bus canopy, which brought the construction total to $21.5 million. A contingency fund of $634,693 brings the total construction costs to $22.1 million.
“I think these decisions have been the right ones for the long haul, but it didn’t come in under budget,” Williamson said. “But I think we’re going to build a school that meets the community’s needs and the county’s needs for a modernized facility.”
School enrollment has been declining in Botetourt County for some time. Ten years ago, the division’s total enrollment was 5,086. This fall’s enrollment was 4,659, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service estimates there will be a school enrollment decrease through 2020, but the county has longed hoped the recent boom in industrial job growth will bring more young families to the area. County Administrator Gary Larrowe said the small enrollment bump could be a sign the county is turning a corner.
“It all goes into the economic picture we’re trying to create,” he said. “I think the school will be a magnet for students and parents.”
In the past several years the county has announced hundreds of new private sector jobs, particularly in the Greenfield industrial center in Daleville.
Larrowe said the county and the school division should have worked more closely for a more accurate enrollment estimate, but that it would not have lowered the cost — just taken away the need for additional appropriations.
When the county started serious discussions about constructing a new school two years ago, the amount to be borrowed was based on a simple square footage estimate.
The school selected a larger and more expensive design, but one that will allow additional classrooms to be built if school enrollment increases.
Williamson said planning could have been better. If the county had used the current design for cost estimates, it would have been more accurate. But even the architectural firm underestimated the rising costs of construction.
“It was a bit like building an airplane while flying it,” Williamson said. “But I wasn’t going to build a school that didn’t have enough classrooms the day they opened the doors.”
Larrowe said the county is lucky it had enough money in its undesignated fund to pay for the unexpected costs.
The board of supervisors agreed it was best to move forward with the project, but Supervisor Steve Clinton asked county staff to review what went wrong and use that knowledge for future projects.
“Let’s be honest, we did some things wrong,” Clinton said. “If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be talking about another $2.5 million.”
Site work on the new school, located about 3 miles from the former school, began in November at the 26-acre site at 142 Murray Drive. Jim Whitten, the project manager, said crews brought in 22 feet of dirt to make a level pad for construction because the original property sloped down into a narrow valley.
Grading was stalled from November through February because of wet weather. Crews were able to work a total of only 14 days during that period.
Grading is currently 90% complete and should be finished in the next month. Once the building construction starts, it will take 12 to 16 months to complete.
Whitten said the school could open by September 2020, but that would be the best case scenario.