Ballard High Building Delayed, Nearly $8 Million Over Budget -- Next 3 Seattle School Projects Also Exceed Earlier Estimates

Out in Ballard, they don't know what's happened to their promised new high school.

Less than 12 months after voters approved a $330 million levy for the Seattle School District to build or renovate 19 schools, the start of work on Ballard - first on the list - has been pushed back at least a year. The architects aren't working on the project because of a dispute with the school district, the price has jumped to nearly $8 million more than the budget, and teachers and parents say the district's construction-management staff members rarely return a phone call.

Nor is Ballard the only problem in the construction program. The next three projects on the list (an auditorium for Rainier Beach High School, which doesn't have one, and classroom additions to Kimball and Sanislo elementary schools), priced at $8.9 million in May, have now risen $800,000 to $9.7 million.

Despite the rocky start, the six-year, $357 million construction program - including $27 million in state matching funds - won't be over budget, district officials say.

The increases for Rainier Beach, Kimball and Sanislo likely will be offset by lower costs for other projects when the district's new construction-management firm, Heery International Inc., finishes its review of the 15 other school projects in the next few weeks, said Don Gillmore, the district's construction manager for South End projects.

And delays of about two months in those three projects - caused

while the district ironed out questions arising from the appearance of a conflict of interest in the hiring of Heery over another firm - can be made up, according to Gillmore and John Vacchiery, a facilities planner for the district.

Even district officials admit, though, the problems with Ballard High won't disappear.

Before the levy election a year ago, the district promised work on the new high school would begin this June. Now, some of the teachers, parents and community members on the design-review committee for the now-$52.8 million, 1,600-student building are worried that it won't even meet its present schedule - groundbreaking in summer 1997 and completion in fall 1999.

Teachers and parents worry that Ballard's uncertain future will turn away potential students when eighth-graders choose their high schools in March.

"It is very depressing," said Lee Anne Bowie, a member of the design-review committee and an English teacher who's been at Ballard 19 years. "Some of us will have to leave the Ballard staff because our enrollment will drop."

Fewer students would mean fewer teachers at the school, which now enrolls 1,144. At some point, whole programs would be eliminated, Bowie said.

" `What's going on with Ballard High School?' All over the place, people are asking me, and what can I say?" wonders Linda Ellingboe, PTSA president.

Of the $7.7 million price increase for Ballard, $3.1 million comes from the cost of preparing the former Wilson Pacific Junior High School to house Ballard students for two years, according to district figures. Part of the $3.1 million is the cost of moving administrative offices from there to the district's University Heights and Sand Point elementary-school buildings, which are currently leased out.

The relocation costs, originally budgeted at $6 million, have shot up to $9.1 million.

Counting relocation, the total project cost is $61.9 million.

To see where construction costs can be cut, the district's Capital Improvement Program (CIP) Oversight Committee has called for a complete review of the project design. Such a review, called "value engineering," is scheduled to start within a week, according to Gary Baldasari, construction manager for North End schools.

The CIP Oversight Committee was scheduled to hear an update on Ballard this afternoon.

Looking for cost savings

In the search for potential savings, a special team of value engineers selected by Heery and the district will face off with the building's designers from the firm of Mahlum & Nordfors McKinley Gordon. The group's proposals for cost savings will be presented to schools Superintendent John Stanford by the end of this month, Baldasari said.

Finding enough to cut, he said, is going to be tough. "There's no question about that," said Baldasari. "The point is, that's the objective and that's what we're going for."

One factor limiting potential savings is an earlier value-engineering review that cut $600,000 from the project early in 1994, bringing it under budget at that time. The basic design for the new high school had been completed by then, using money from a 1984 construction-bond issue.

The schedule delay is apparently partly due to an unresolved dispute between the district and Mahlum & Nordfors. The architects aren't working because the firm says the district owes about $150,000 for design work done because of a change ordered in the building's proposed heating system. The district offered to settle for about half, but negotiations broke down almost two years ago.

Vince Nordfors, a principal in the firm, declined comment on the claim last week. Baldasari said new negotiations are under way.

Same plans, different eyes

Ballard's budget shows dramatic increases in such areas as "fixed equipment," "site development," "hazardous materials removal" and "off-site improvements" since the levy passed. But it's not changes in the plans that have caused those costs to jump, just new estimators looking at the same plans through different eyes, according to Baldasari.

"When you work with estimators, they're just good guessers, period," he said. "The guy with a little sharper pencil has a better average than the other guy," he added, offering no other explanation of why the estimates of a year ago were wrong.

Baldasari and Patrick Renfro, the school district's construction manager, met with the design-review committee and Ballard PTSA early in November but gave them no clear reasons that costs had gone up, said PTSA president Ellingboe. Since then, calls and letters to the construction office have gone largely unanswered, she said.

Superintendent Stanford has promised that the construction program - and Ballard High, specifically - will be completed within budget. That's not altogether reassuring to those who've spent years waiting for a new Ballard High. The building has been a poster child advertising the age and deteriorated condition of many Seattle Public Schools since 1992, when the district ran the first of five elections it took before voters finally agreed to tax themselves for new schools.

Ballard's partisans now worry that "within budget" will mean cutting back and building a bare-bones school. In their view, the district owes them the school pictured on the plans the design-review committee approved in early 1994.

To build it, they want the district to take money from the nearly $10 million now budgeted to start renovation of the former Lincoln High School. That's the 20th project on the district's list and would be fixed up to house Hamilton Middle School - but only if the $10 million, plus savings from the first 19 projects add up to enough to do the job.

The oversight committee, however, has recommended against using the $10 million set aside for Lincoln, at least for now. The committee is concerned about the solvency of the whole program, and has recommended that the district look for cost savings in the Ballard design before raiding other funds.

"The committee's suggestion to the district is that before they go any further with anything on Ballard they need to get the professionals together and take a hard look at whether or not they can bring Ballard in inside of the original estimate or closer to it," said John Clearman, chairman of the committee, which is made up of construction and finance professionals, several of them retired. "We're reluctant to see (the district) commit funds of that magnitude to one school this early in the program."

Tell that to Ballard.

"The community at large here has been prompted to get involved in the past few weeks," said Rob Mattson, coordinator of the city's neighborhood service center in Ballard and a sounding board for community sentiment. "Basically, the message to the superintendent and the School Board is: `Hey, we're going to hold you to your promises. Build it now and as previously designed. We don't want you to go back to the drawing boards.' "


How Ballard budget grew.

Here are the steps in the growth of the Ballard High School construction budget:

-- $43.2 million: What the school district told voters a new Ballard High School would cost before the 1995 levy. This was a mistake by the district; the figure had been calculated several years earlier, and didn't account for inflation. To make the Ballard cost more comparable to costs listed for the other 18 schools in the construction program, the figure voters should have been given was $45.5 million.

-- $48.2 million: Ballard's cost increased to account for inflation between the time of the $45.5 million figure and 1996, when construction was expected to start. Up to this point, Ballard was still within the limits of the program approved by voters, because increases due to inflation were budgeted in the total amount.

-- $52.8 million: Latest estimate of Ballard's construction costs; exceeds budget by $4.6 million, primarily because of actual increases in various project costs.

-- $58.8 million: Add the $6 million originally budgeted for relocation of students and staff during construction.

-- $61.9 million: Current estimate of total project cost, including $3.1 million in unanticipated relocation costs. Exceeds current funding by $7.7 million.