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School districts struggle with building project inflation

Sticker shock

Inflation is touching every corner and industry in the United States, including Butler County school districts, which must make tough decisions to cope with the sky-high prices.

Among the most affected are two county school districts with construction projects — one of which was postponed due to the rising building and material costs.

Karns City Area School District’s board voted Monday to reject all bids for the Chicora Elementary School building project, while South Butler School District is postponing an extensive renovation for the same reason.

$8 million over budget

Karns City Superintendent Eric Ritzert said plans for Chicora Elementary School will have to be postponed, due to bids that were $8 million over budget.

The district anticipated spending $18 million for the project, but opted not to immediately proceed with any of the bids, which were received June 8 and came back at about $26 million.

“Eighteen million dollars was slated for the project, that included construction cost, encapsulates moving dirt, building materials, etc.,” Ritzert said.

Ritzert said all bids were rejected so architects could go back to the drawing board.

“Can the scope of the project be changed somewhat,” he said, “or (we may) wait to see if inflation pressure reduces some.”

The school project would expand Chicora Elementary to include a new classroom wing, separate cafeteria and all-purpose outdoor playing field. Sugarcreek Elementary students would migrate to the larger facility, which would then hold more than 650 students. Chicora serves more than 400 current students.

Timelines originally planned for major construction to be finished by August 2023. With inflation pushing back the project, Ritzert said Sugarcreek will need to be in operation for the 2023-24 school year.

“We’re working with the architect to look at options of putting (the project) out for bid again in the fall,” he said. “It could have a similar timeline, but Chicora and Sugarcreek will remain open through the 2023-2024 school year.”

Ritzert said he was told that roofing would be the most expensive part of the project.

“Architects told me current construction costs are running 20% to 30% higher than a year ago,” he said. “It’s hard to ask contractors who are doing their best to secure building materials at lower costs. They’re saying ‘here’s my numbers, I don’t know what materials will cost two years out.’”

He added that the Chicora Elementary project is not the only project affected by inflation costs.

“(Contractors) told us it’s not unique to us, but that doesn’t make it better,” he said. “It’s discouraging. I feel the plan and final project is in the best interest of the community as a whole.

“As a district, we’re this close, and inflation has impacted us locally.”

Planning renovations

Another school district in the county that is in the throes of a construction project is South Butler County, which is planning a $34.3 million renovation of Knoch High School.

The district has already held many meetings with architects from DRAW Collective to determine which upgrades should be prioritized.

Superintendent David Foley told those at a public presentation Wednesday of preliminary design plans that because of the current market, he and architects listed various facets of the project in “need,” “should” and “like” categories to prioritize which will be included in the renovation project.

The school board is expected to vote on the preliminary renovation design at its July 13 meeting.

John Pappas, the project construction manager, said at last week’s school board meeting that the market could stabilize, costs could decrease somewhat, or bids could come in well over estimates.

Luckily, the district was able to close on its bond deal just before interest rates were increased, said Jamie Van Lenten, South Butler’s business manager, which allowed the district more cash flow and a lower interest rate.

The Knoch High School project will be advertised for bids after a design is approved by the school board and all necessary permits are in place.

A silver lining

Meanwhile, Butler Area School District just missed the rising prices, according to Superintendent Brian White.

Construction adding an auxiliary gym and classroom space to the Butler Senior High School has been in the works since September.

“Our project bids were received last summer, so our pricing was locked in. Therefore, inflation hasn't impacted the school district’s construction costs,” he said.

South Butler’s Foley said on Wednesday that even if bids come in far beyond estimates — as they did in Karns City — the design will be scaled back and modified as necessary.

“We will not abandon the project,” Foley said.

Despite the postponement and re-evaluation of the project in Karns City, Ritzert said there is a silver lining.

“It’s reassuring that Sugarcreek can still provide quality education through the building and staff,” he said. “We’ll continue to utilize the school in a safe manner as long as we need.”