By Dustin Luca
---- — Andover voters will decide Monday whether to approve $5.7 million to finish building the new 680-student Bancroft Elementary School that is currently about 25-percent complete.
As you read this, crews are busy building the new school inside an assembly of steel beams and tarp walls on Bancroft Road. The temporary walls allow them to work protected from the cold winter air. But unless Special Town Meeting approves the additional spending next week, their work will stop once the building’s real walls go up, say officials.
The extra $5,715,000 is needed because a lawsuit by abutters stopped the project for a year at a time when construction costs were increasing, according to the School Building Committee.
Voters will meet at Andover High School’s Collins Center for the Performing Arts, on the right side of the Shawsheen Road building, on Monday, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.
Residents approved the original $44.7 million project because officials said the existing Bancroft School has structural issues and the new, larger building will allow the town to redistrict elementary school students throughout Andover so that all buildings are at capacity. The state will reimburse the town for 44 percent of the $44.7 million.
Town taxes will cover 100 percent of any additional money approved.
ABUTTERS’ APPEALS POSTPONE PLANS
The Bancroft School construction project was first approved by voters at a December 2010 Special Town Meeting. A ballot vote the next month approved a debt exclusion override, allowing taxes to be raised above the levels allowed under Proposition 2 1/2, specifically to pay for the $44.7 million price tag.
After receiving final approval from residents, the School Building Committee started putting its plans in motion in less than 24 hours, according to Tom Deso, committee chairman. The committee hired a construction manager and started putting the designs together to present them to an eager construction market. However, as parts of the project were about to go out to bid, everything stopped.
“We were informed that two Main Street residents had filed an appeal to the Conservation Commission’s ruling on the project, on the wetlands,” Deso said.
The appeals stemmed from the first phase of the project, slated to extend the end of neighboring West Knoll Road to the school, creating a second driveway to the school during construction. With the road going through wetlands, the Conservation Commission was asked to establish and issue an order of conditions permitting the construction.
That decision was appealed up to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection by some abutters — Dana Willis of 280 South Main St.; Michael Noakes of 286 South Main St.; and Stanley and Leslie Mann of 286 South Main St. At the same time, the town was sued in state Superior Court by Willis and Mann for not adhering to its own wetlands bylaws. The point of contention was that the town didn’t use accurate stormwater management calculations, and that property owned by those appealing the project would be negatively impacted by the project as designed.
Attempts to reach the South Main Street residents for comment were unsuccessful.
BUDGET SHORTFALL REALIZED
After months of litigation, the abutters settled with the town on terms that included a reduction in the number of sports fields at the school and protections from site lighting and noise. But the construction market had changed.
“When we went to bid [that summer], we had brought the project into budget” using estimates, Deso said. “Then the bids started coming in, and they were totally off from what the estimates were.”
Initial figures put the budget gap at around $6.4 million, Deso said. After a few months of analysis and putting more bid packages on the streets, the final deficit number was brought to around $5.7 million.
By that time, a Special Town Meeting had been announced to seek the additional money.
PAYING FOR A $50.4 MILLION SCHOOL
The project’s original cost, as presented to voters at Special Town Meeting in 2010, was $44,659,837. Of that, 44 percent of construction costs would be reimbursed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, bringing down the project’s final cost to the town to $27,886,084.
The MSBA will not pick up any of the extra $5,715,000, if approved, according to Deso.
Due to the nature of the cost increase, the town can pay for some of that under the January 2011 debt exclusion override of Proposition 2 1/2, according to Jon Stumpf, Finance Committee chairman. The state’s Department of Revenue has certified that the town can add another $4,235,538 above its tax level limits without needing a new debt exemption vote.
The remaining portion of the $5.7 million — $1,579,462 — will be “funded with property taxes and other general fund revenue available within Proposition 2 1/2 levy limits,” Stumpf said.
The additional $4.2 million will contribute an extra $24 to the average home’s tax bill during the highest year of debt service in 2015, Stumpf said.
The average homeowner will pay a one-year total of $181 for the project during the highest year of debt service, if the extra money is approved.
VOTERS SAY NO?
That’s if the voters say yes. What if they say no?
Officials will ask for money again, and they have a place-holder article ready for Annual Town Meeting in May. Because construction costs are increasing, and the town would lose bids currently in hand, Deso says the town would need to ask for $7.1 million at Annual Town Meeting, according to Deso.
Every part of the project has been put in the hands of bidding subcontractors, according to Deso.
“They’re required to hold their prices for 120 days, and that’s the end of February,” he said. “That’s that critical date.”
The $5.7 million will allow the School Building Committee to award the contracts to the winning bidders under their current bids. If the bids expire, the committee will have to put the items back out to bid, where Deso said as much as a 15 percent rate of inflation is expected.
Deso said it would cost more than $5.7 million to tear down the new building and return the site to the way it was. The town could lose the nearly $17 million in state aid it is receiving if it does not build the school it promised the MSBA, which eliminates additional, sizable cuts to the project, he said.
FINANCE, BANCROFT PTO: SAY YES
The Finance Committee supported the Special Town Meeting article unanimously, saying that the cost increases were beyond the town’s control, and “the actual construction has progressed to a point where stopping the project is not a viable option,” Stumpf said.
Lisa Grecoe, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, said “looking at the facts, I think people will understand that this money is needed, and we have to vote yes.”
The PTO was concerned when news broke that the project was so far out of budget.
“There was concern of course. Why do we need $5.7 million?” Grecoe said. “When we did hold an informational night at the Bancroft school for the Bancroft parents, before it went into print so the Bancroft community knew what was going on, a lot of parents turned out and learned the facts. Those parents went on and told other parents, and everyone understood where it’s at.”
“We’re halfway there,” Grecoe said. “The Bancroft community needs this school.”
The $5.7 million to be raised will be broken down into a number of different areas, the largest covering "construction trades." Construction trades include playground equipment, interior work, and overhead costs associated with construction, such as bonding and insurance. While individual line items can't be listed due to pending contract agreements, the categories on how the money will be used is available. Administration costs (previous permit, legal costs) $580,471 Construction trades (17 not yet awarded) $4,629,529 Construction contingency (for working on unexpected items) $200,000 Owner contingency (to pay people on the project if more time is needed) $305,000