Indian River School District keeps eye on spiking construction costs, as plans continue for new school

By Glenn Rolfe
Posted 7/27/21

GEORGETOWN — Regardless of commodity costs, the plan remains to build a new Sussex Central High School for 2,200 students by fall 2024.

Alternatives may be in limbo, however, thanks to skyrocketing costs in the construction market.

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Indian River School District keeps eye on spiking construction costs, as plans continue for new school

Posted

GEORGETOWN — Regardless of commodity costs, the plan remains to build a new Sussex Central High School for 2,200 students by fall 2024.

Alternatives may be in limbo, however, thanks to skyrocketing costs in the construction market.

“The market pressure has increased for us, and we do have concerns … with what we may or may not be able to include in this school,” said Indian River School District Superintendent Dr. Jay Owens at the Monday board of education meeting.

Bottom line, said IRSD Supervisor of Buildings and Grounds Joe Booth, is that additional state funding may be needed.

“This district will probably have to approach the state for more money to complete this project, if we are not funded for inflation or funded for market pressure,” he said.

Rodney Layfield, president of the school board, agreed.

“I think most of the board is aware of the situation we will be facing. Commodities and prices are already going up,” he said.

Mr. Layfield added that the district is trying to reach out to its legislators “to help us build the school in its original design.”

After two defeated referendums the year prior, on Feb. 13, 2020, IRSD voters approved a multipronged major capital improvement plan in a near-record voting turnout. It includes:

  • Construction of a 2,200-student Sussex Central High School at the current campus property.
  • Relocation of Millsboro Middle School to the existing SCHS building.
  • Conversion of the existing Millsboro Middle building into an elementary school.

The district sought the referendum to address enrollment growth and substantial overcrowding. Sussex Central High, built for 1,500 students, has been at or around 120%, the largest overcapacity in the district, for a number of years.

At the time of the referendum’s passage, the new school’s construction carried an approximate $146 million price tag. The local taxpayer share is $58.4 million in the 60-40 state-local funding ratio.

“We’re only at the schematic phase right now, which is what we put in the school based on the program analysis that we did of the existing Sussex Central school. That would factor in the growth of what they would need in each area. Basically, the number of classrooms, anything that they thought they might need in the future,” Mr. Booth said. “It’s over 300,000 square feet that, with the amount of time that we’re going to use, it’s tough to predict. But I would think that we’re probably going to need some more money from somewhere.”

Throughout, it is paramount that the district “be good stewards of taxpayer money,” he added.

Given the current cost for construction materials — perhaps most notably lumber, which has been at or near record highs — IRSD is preparing for alternatives, should prices not stabilize within the coming year.

“As we plan now — we won’t go out to be bid for another year — but as we plan, we need to plan for the market as it is today,” Dr. Owens said. “We’re doing that, and we are hoping to provide within the school what we want. However, we may need to consider alternates, as opposed to what makes it into a base bid.”

The U.S. Labor Department’s producer price index indicates that the price of lumber more than doubled from May 2020 to May 2021.

During a project update at IRSD’s June 28 school board meeting, Carl Krienen, project manager for ABHA/BSA+A Architects, threw caution to the wind.

“It’s very volatile. If you’ve been to Lowe’s lately to try to buy some lumber, it’s like four times what it was a few months (ago),” he said. “So budgeting a project that is not going to be bid until next year is a very difficult process because you just really don’t know where the numbers are right now. We believe we are on target. We are hopeful that the budget that we have now will be maintained, and then, next year, when it goes out to bid, the market will be a little bit less volatile, the numbers will be better, and we will be able to afford more of the building.”

Design and the uncertainty of the market will be the focus of the architect’s presentation during the district’s monthly Buildings & Grounds Committee meeting Aug. 9.

“At that meeting, we will discuss our timetable, finance choices and current schematic design,” Dr. Owens said. “We’ll discuss some of our options and alternates that may be available.”

In planning for the high school and middle school conversion, officials are exploring architectural options to potentially repurpose several wings for “shared space.”

“The proposal that the architects are working on is one that includes shared space and a connection to the new high school to what will become the middle school. That way, it gives you flexibility,” said Mr. Booth. “There are models around the state that do the same thing. We already currently do that with Georgetown Middle and Georgetown Elementary. They have space in there, and the line kind of moves one way or the other depending on the enrollment. You have some flex area.”

The auditorium is one great idea of shared space “because it is one of the more expensive to build in terms of square footage, but it is the least amount of space used,” Mr. Booth continued.

The hope of the district and architectural team is that market stabilization will occur in the coming year.

“Right now, I think we are on a good path. We’ve got what we believe is a size and shape that fits within our budget,” Mr. Krienen said. “We have those … alternates.

“That’s our job, to make sure that that budget is safeguarded throughout the bidding phase.”

Barring any roadblocks, the new high school is tentatively scheduled to open to students in fall 2024.

The new Howard T. Ennis School, under construction off Patriots Way across from the current Sussex Central High, is not being impacted by the commodity spike.

“Howard T. Ennis’ bid went in before the market changed drastically. So we actually are in really good shape,” said Dr. Owens.