EASTHAM — Before the foundations are laid for the Nauset Regional High School renovation project, voters in the four district towns may have to authorize a new budget.
Of the $131.8 million that was approved by voters in Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, and Brewster in March 2021, $104.9 million was designated for construction costs. But when the chair of the Nauset Regional High School Building Committee, Greg Levasseur, presented the general contractor bids to the regional school committee on Oct. 27, the lowest offer, by Brait Builders of Marshfield, was $134.3 million.
The only other bid came from J&J Contractors of Billerica, for $149 million.
The sizable overages in the Brait bid included sub-bids for HVAC, which was $9 million over the projected $16 million cost, as well as for electrical, which was $5 million over the estimate. Other overages were for the cost of windows and doors, according to Levasseur.
During the design planning stages since the 2021 vote, the school committee “value engineered” ways to keep building costs under budget because of the construction market’s volatility. But the $30-million overage is too much money to shave off, Levasseur said at the Oct. 27 meeting. “It would do something that nobody really wants to do, which is attack the core of the program,” he said.
To lower costs by $30 million, Levasseur said, they would have to cut 64,000 square feet from the renovation, which is a third of the project.
“There are really no good solutions,” regional school committee Chair Chris Easley said. “We cannot go back and redesign because that would stop everything.”
The building committee decided the best course of action is to take the issue back to the voters, said Levasseur.
That decision was unanimous. “[The voters] should have the right to make the decision of either moving forward or not moving forward, but it is their decision to make,” building committee member Tom Fitzgibbons said.
Brait Builders, which was also the general contractor for the rebuilding of Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich, originally gave the school committee a deadline of 30 days to accept or reject the bid. That was extended first to 60 days and then to 90 days to allow for a new district-wide vote.
The building committee was expected to finalize a number for the updated budget on Wednesday, Nov. 2, after which the regional school committee will decide if a district-wide vote will be called.
That vote would likely take place in mid-January.
The approved budget of $131.8 million, with the new numbers from Brait Builders slotted into place, would be increased to $161.2 million. If that were the final number for a new budget, it would represent a 22.5-percent increase overall.
Easley said that the new budget request will most likely be for more than the $30 million construction overage, however. “When we go back and ask the voters for money, we are probably going to be asking for more than that because we have spent funds that were not budgeted,” he told the Independent.
The additional funds are for “contingencies” as well as the purchase of 37 modular trailers rather than the 16 that had been budgeted.
Easley said that no one is to blame for the escalating costs. “There is nothing that we have done wrong,” he said. The overages are a “statement of our day and time.
“Covid and the Ukrainian war are probably the two biggest factors to it,” he said. “Throw in inflation and it is almost a perfect storm against us.”
The regional school committee received a grant of $36.6 million from the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA), but the rest of the cost will be paid by taxpayers in the school district. The $131.8-million budget was overwhelmingly supported by the district’s voters in 2021 and was apportioned by school population for each town, with Brewster set to pay 48 percent, Eastham 20 percent, Orleans 19 percent, and Wellfleet 13 percent of the costs not covered by the state. But school committee members suggested alternative methods of apportioning costs during the Oct. 27 meeting.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to splitting 25 percent per town,” committee member Josh Stewart said. “A massive chunk of this is on Brewster, and I don’t necessarily see that as fair,” he said.
“I don’t know if that is legally viable,” Nauset Schools Supt. Brooke Clenchy responded. Regional school district agreements and state law stipulate how schools are funded.
Easley also said that the $30-million overage is not anomalous. “There are all sorts of other projects across the state that are in the same boat,” he said.
Easley pointed to the Tisbury School on Martha’s Vineyard, whose renovation project began in 2018 with a budget of $46.6 million, including $14 million in aid from MSBA. The project was rejected by voters, but after lead and asbestos were found in the school a year later, the district was forced to renovate the building without MSBA aid. Voters approved a budget of $55 million in 2021, but an updated budget now has the project at $81 million, an increase of more than 50-percent.
“I’m not telling a bad tale,” Easley told the school committee. “It’s just that there isn’t any history of a place going backwards,” he said.
If the new budget is rejected, Easley said, the estimated $17 million that the committee has already spent on architects, project management, trailers, and land preparation will be lost.
It would also make it difficult to receive MSBA funding for a future project. “There has never been a school building project that was offered money, which it turned down, that was ever funded again,” Easley warned.
Downsizing the project into a smaller school would not lower the cost, said Easley. Aside from losing the $36.6 million in state funding, the project would see much higher supply and labor costs.
“It makes no sense to believe that somehow we can begin again and save taxpayer money in the process,” Easley said. “It is much easier to act on the known than the possibilities of wishful thinking.”
The next school committee meeting is on Thursday, Nov. 3.