By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton middle and high school modernization project’s estimated total cost now exceeds $54 million, county supervisors learned at their Dec. 14 meeting.
Superintendent Eddie Lawrence said, “Inflation hit the building costs very hard, and that continues to be a concern for everybody … and we continue going over the plans each and every week.”
The project’s design phase has surpassed the 75% completion mark and is now heading toward 95% completion; the cost estimate for the 95% design completion stage will be available in January 2022.
When the design phase reached 45% completion, the project’s estimated cost was about $46 million. Since then, that estimate has increased about $8 million, or 17%.
It’s possible that prices could come down before the project goes out to bid, Lawrence said.
It’s also possible that the project could go out to bid and Northampton could be hit with “another surprise,” said Dixon Leatherbury, chairman of the board of supervisors.
Northampton schools Chief Financial Officer Brook Thomas noted there is a list of items that could be struck from the project if expenses climb too high.
“But through the whole process, we are paying very close attention to putting things in the school that are necessary and not luxuries … things that really we’re going to get payback over time or are necessary for the future instructional environment for the students of the county,” Thomas said.
One necessity recently identified is a new floor for the Northampton High School gym. Low levels of mercury were detected in the gym floor; the mercury was produced in the poured flooring by a catalyst that gives the floor a rubberized texture.
The new gym floor, which contributed to the increased cost of the construction project, will be installed during the first phase of construction.
Supervisor David Fauber asked if money could be saved by replacing the high school’s outdated HVAC system with similar equipment instead of a geothermal system that costs more up front.
Thomas noted that doing a “like for like” replacement of the HVAC system would mean overhauling construction plans and delaying the project.
“I get that … you would have to redo the drawings, but you might save $5 million going in,” Fauber said.
Thomas said the upfront savings were only about $3 million, and the geothermal system would save much more money over time in reduced operating costs.
“It’s pay me now, pay me later … pay me a lot later, actually. The long-term costs are tens of millions,” Supervisor John Coker said.
Lawrence agreed. “If we’ve learned anything from our elementary schools … it’s not only pay a light cost later, it’s pay more cost later.”
(Kiptopeke and Occohannock elementary schools were built at the same time; their HVAC systems began failing at the same time and are now being replaced with efficient but expensive geothermal systems in back-to-back years.)
Supervisor Oliver Bennett asked for clarification on the additional 1% sales tax that Northampton citizens approved by referendum in November 2020 and took effect July 1.
Finance Director John Chandler said the additional sales tax will remain in effect until the money borrowed for the school improvement projects is repaid or no more than 20 years.
The committee of county and school officials overseeing the high school project has “worked tirelessly to try to keep this project on track” in spite of its increasing budget, Lawrence said.
The original plan was for the construction phase to last three years, but it was discovered that it would be cheaper if construction was completed over a two-year period and portable classrooms were leased for maintaining continuity of instruction.
According to the current timeline, the contract for the project will be awarded by June 2022, and construction will be completed over the following two-year period.