Tuesday, November 10, 2009

School bond projects end on time and within budget for McAllen ISD

School bond projects end on time and within budget for McAllen ISD
November 09, 2009 10:16 AM 
Jennifer L. Berghom
The Monitor

McALLEN — It’s finished.

On Oct. 30 the McAllen school district celebrated the grand opening of the last component of its 2005 bond projects, the district operations complex, which also houses the system’s warehouse, central kitchen and transportation building.

The $13.3 million project was the last of several that voters approved in 2005 when the school district sought to sell $97.8 million in bonds to pay for them.

Other projects funded with the bond issue were the construction of five new elementary schools and a middle school, a new gymnasium for Lincoln Middle School, additions for McAllen High and Navarro Elementary schools, a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system for Memorial High School, and other renovations and improvements.

Final expenses for construction and other work were about $10 million more than originally planned, but the district was able to pay for those extra costs because the money it received from selling bonds accrued more interest than the district was paying on them, said McAllen School Board President Richard Moore.

The completion of the bond project on time and with enough money was the combination of hard work by the community, the school system, the engineering firm contracted to oversee the project and a little “dumb luck,” Moore said.

McAllen taxpayers didn’t originally support spending millions of dollars on new constructions and renovations. They shot down a similar bond request in 2003. Opponents of that bond said they did not trust the district to handle such a large project.

That prompted then-superintendent Yolanda Chapa to visit with community and business leaders to find out what the district needed to do to win the people’s favor.

“She listened to the bad news,” Moore said.

The district also formed a committee of residents from different facets of the community, called the Community Capital Advisory Committee, to assess the needs of the district and compile a report. The language of the bond referendum came from the committee; the board just ratified it, Moore said.

Proponents of the bond also formed a political action group to advertise and promote the proposal when it was placed on the ballot two years after the earlier referendum failed.

After voters approved the bond issue, the advisory committee played an integral role in making sure the project stayed on task, said Moore and former committee members. The committee stopped meeting about a year ago, when the contract to build the maintenance and operations complex was awarded.

“All of the grunt work was done by the committee,” Moore said.

Members of the group met several times over nearly a year to go over plans and make sure the district stuck to what the bond measure authorized, said Mike Blum, who served as the committee’s president.

“There are very few times when a political community is able to do something that has a multi-generational impact,” he said. “I knew going in we could make a difference.”

The district built the elementary schools with identical blueprints to save money on planning and materials, Blum said. The committee also had a Web site residents could access to learn about the bond and where the money was going.

Moore and Blum also credit Jacobs Facilities Inc. — the engineering firm hired to oversee the project — with keeping costs low enough to complete all the projects within the parameters of the referendum.

When bids started coming in for new construction of Thigpen-Zavala and Fields elementary schools, they were about $2 million more than what the district had planned a couple years earlier, Moore said.

But Kevin Hitchcock, a program manager with Jacobs Facilities and former manager of the district’s bond projects, was able to negotiate lower costs for those schools, as well as the other bond items, Moore said.

Though the district was able to complete its bond projects without having to ask for more money, some who were involved in the construction and renovations thought the final price tag was too high, especially for the district operations complex.

“It certainly cost more than it should’ve cost,” said Ruth Skow, president of the McAllen American Federation of Teachers and a former member of the advisory committee. “I feel a lot of angst about the final costs.”

Skow praised Blum for how he was able to organize the committee members, even if they all didn’t always agree.

“I’m glad it’s completed. We did our best to do what the taxpayers approved,” she said. “I was very honored to work on the bond.”

Though the district has completed its checklist of needs addressed with the 2005 bond, it already has begun assessing what might be needed in the future.

Another community advisory committee has been formed, and earlier this year it gave a report to the school board listing repairs, construction and other work the district might want to consider.

The district has not made any decisions on that report or set a timeline for acting on it.

Jennifer L. Berghom covers education and general assignments for The Monitor. She can be reached at (956) 683-4462