Chesterfield County school officials will proceed with a renovation of Monacan High School as planned and cover a $3.3 million budget overrun with reserve funds.
At a meeting of the county’s school construction committee Wednesday, members of the School Board and Board of Supervisors agreed the scope of the renovations couldn’t be cut without leaving students who attend the school in a worse facility than their peers around the county.
“I think it’s clear that we don’t want to short Monacan,” Midlothian District Supervisor Daniel A. Gecker said.
The cost overrun has been a source of contention between county and school leaders. And while school officials have told county leaders they were not made aware of the increased cost until recently, the architect for the project on Wednesday indicated that some form of notice had been provided.
As recently as last month, when the county passed its budget, school officials estimated the renovation would cost $14 million. But the lowest bid on the project came in this month at $17.3 million.
School officials presented committee members with a list of items that could be cut from the renovation. It included reducing the number of tennis courts from six to four; not installing lights for the courts; and not replacing drinking fountains in the building.
The committee went into a closed session to discuss the exact amount each item would save, but officials said none would come close to eliminating the overrun.
The county built Monacan in 1979 and it is the only aging high school that has not undergone a recent renovation. Funded by a 2013 bond referendum, the planned work includes a performing arts and gym addition, renovation and general structural work.
The estimate for the work was based on the cost of recent renovations at Midlothian High School, which has a similar floor plan. But school officials said they failed to take into account slight differences between the two buildings.
While the School Board members and supervisors on the committee agreed the county should move forward with the renovation as planned, for the second consecutive meeting there was debate about whether the school system should have known sooner that the project was going to cost more than originally estimated.
At the last meeting of the committee, School Board Chairwoman Carrie E. Coyner said that while the architect on the project had the information in June 2014, it never was relayed to the schools.
On Wednesday, Chris Sorensen, the district’s assistant superintendent for business and finance, told the committee members that “there’s really no formal record” of the school district being warned of the cost increase.
The supervisors on the committee immediately pushed back. “You used the word ‘formal,’ ” Gecker said. “Was there informal communication about the increase in cost?”
The architect who worked on the project, Roger Richardson of BCWH, responded more bluntly than in the previous meeting: “Yes,” he said.
From there, the discussion turned to how the school system can respond to make sure a similar error isn’t repeated.
Schools Superintendent Marcus J. Newsome referred to a plan of action he developed in response to a critical audit that found basic math errors and record-keeping issues in the school construction department.
He cited his proposal to hire a chief operating officer as one of the steps he’s taken to bring more oversight to the schools construction and facilities department.
Hinting at a likely debate to come, Gecker and Supervisor Steve A. Elswick suggested they weren’t convinced additional staff is the right way to address the issue.
“To me, the fix is not to go hire someone else to make sure people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Gecker said. “The fix is to hire people who do what they’re supposed to do.”