Waggoner Elementary project over budget, Trustees approve second cost assessment

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Photo by Crystal Apilado/Winters Express

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The Winters Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees approved a second cost assessment on the Waggoner Elementary School construction project after the first determined the project would be $6 million over budget.

Mary Fitzgerald, Senior Project Manager with Van Pelt Construction Services, presented the Board with three agenda items, with the second seeking the approval of an amendment to commission Studio W, the construction company working on the school, to reassess the cost estimate provided by Cummings, their previous cost estimating firm.

The first estimate on the eight-classroom project was found to be, “about $6 million over-budget,” Fitzgerald noted, but she and officials in the school district believe there is reason to view this current estimate as greatly overestimating the potential cost.

In a meeting for Measures R, D, P, and W planning, held earlier, the Board decided a second assessment was necessary, and this proposal brought by Fitzgerald represents the culmination of that decision.

“A second estimate would provide the information needed to make the decision if the district will have enough funds to move forward with the eight-classroom buildings,” Fitzgerald summarized.

But if the second assessment upholds the costs of the first, there is an upcoming Preschool Transitional Kindergarten and Kindergarten grant that may help cover the extra costs of construction.

Fitzgerald explained that SchoolWorks — a California-based organization that assists schools with facility planning, demographic analysis, and state building program eligibility — feels confident the school district will be awarded the design funds in late November and that Winters JUSD would be eligible to qualify for construction funds, following DSA and CDE approval.

The construction funds, Fitzgerald noted, were around $6.7 million, which could cover the first cost assessment’s plan if it came to that. Still, Fitzgerald argued that even if the grant was awarded to Winters JUSD, she would still recommend cutting costs.

Board Trustee Everardo Zaragoza inquired with Fitzgerald on the possible timeline for DSA approval and construction on Waggoner Elementary. Fitzgerald responded that, if she was speaking, “highly optimistically,” she hopes the project will get DSA approval by April and start construction by June.

Zaragoza followed with a question on cost per square foot, which members of the Board and Fitzgerald had already discussed in the general meeting, and asked Fitzgerald what the cost estimate was for other schools and projects in the area.

Fitzgerald expounded on the cost-per-square-foot discrepancy that serves as the basis for her belief that the first cost estimate was over-cautious. She told the Board that she reached out to another contracting firm with a project in Sacramento that she says, “are in the $700–800 (per square foot) range,” and noted later that a similar project on Winters High School was in a similar cost range.

However, the first cost estimate was more in the range of $1,200–1,300 per square foot. Though she notes that construction projects get a better deal on larger full-site construction rather than just adding classrooms like at Waggoner, Fitzgerald says the disparity of costs is far too large to be accounted for by this fact. In her opinion, “$800 would be more of a reasonable thing for the district to expect for an eight-classroom building.”

“Cummings is normally a very good company,” Fitzgerald stated, “so ‘are they being overcautious’ is the question — will a second estimating firm provide a different square footage cost.” When the second cost assessment takes place, “Studio W will go to both these firms and figure out ‘where’s the difference, what’s going on here.’”

Board Clerk Joedy Michael summarized some points from the previous meeting that the question of if this cost estimate will hold up is preventing a lot of long-term planning. He then asked Fitzgerald, “is there any way to time this to wait to know if we’re going to get the construction grant?”

Fitzgerald noted that because the construction grant is, “probably in that $6 million range,” it would help the potential cost, but still, Fitzgerald says the square footage cost estimate is, “just unheard of.”

Board Trustee Kristin Trott asked Fitzgerald about what happens to the construction plans if the district goes ahead with the design that assumes the grant money, and then they don’t get it.

Fitzgerald responded that the district, “could start over and pay for the redesign fees,” they could look to find additional funds to cover the existing designs, or they could wait because “DSA plans have four years of approval.” But Fitzgerald reiterated that SchoolWorks, “really feels that the district is eligible for the construction fees,” though design funding is still to be determined.

Trott followed up with a question of how much would the district have to shave off the construction budget, assuming the $1,200 per square foot, and if being granted the funding would cover it.

Though this grant the district is likely to receive will be in the $6 million range to cover the over-budget costs, Fitzgerald still recommended cutting costs on the project as much as possible as a precautionary measure. She noted that parts of the proposed plan, including entryways into the school, are, “aesthetically pleasing, but they are not necessarily functional for other aspects of the student’s day,” and that the Board should ensure the money it has is spent on building the necessary additions to Waggoner Elementary.

Board President Carrie Green affirmed the necessity of the cost reassessment and confirmed with Fitzgerald that the cost of the amendment will come out of Measure W bond funds, which will cost $9,878. The Board passed the amendment unanimously.

Upcoming meeting
The next Winters JUSD Board of Trustees is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 3 at 6 p.m. in the school district board room. The public can join online at https://tinyurl.com/5n7jsbac.

Trustees are expected to interview applicants and select one to serve as the Trustee for Area 4.

Winters JUSD had extended the deadline for applications to Wednesday, Nov. 2 the previous week to allow residents who reside in the area more time to submit an application.

Trustees will also take action on whether or not to approve the job description for an Attendance and Engagement Specialist (Counselor on Special Assignment).

The job description was presented as an information item at the Oct. 20 meeting.

If approved, the Attendance and Engagement Specialist would be responsible for the development, implementation, and oversight of a Student Attendance and Engagement Program utilizing a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework. Additionally, the role would work with Winters JUSD staff, students, and parents to assure there is compliance with attendance laws and regulations and other related duties as required by the Board or laws.

Lisa Dennis, Human Resources Director, told Trustees that school districts across the State of California are experiencing ongoing challenges with attendance rates and chronic absenteeism in the wake of the pandemic. While attendance rates are slowly improving at Winters JUSD, they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Winters JUSD staff has identified a need to expand its efforts to ensure all students attend school regularly, especially those with the least access to equitable opportunities to learn.

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