Monday August 2, 2010

BELLOWS FALLS -- Renovations to the Bellows Falls Middle School might cost as much as $11.3 million, and now the Rockingham School Board has to decide how much to ask for from the voters to move ahead with the project.

"We knew it was going to be high, but I guess we didn’t think it would be quite so high," Article 6 Committee Chairman Tim Doherty said after the meeting on Thursday. "A lot of this work should have been done 15 years ago, and I don’t think we can put it off any longer."

Members of the Article 6 Committee, which was formed a year-and-a-half ago to study the pending project, got their most detailed report yet on the scope of work needed at the 84-year-old building.

John Hemmelgarn, an engineer with Black River Design, met with the committee to present reports by a group of mechanical and electrical engineers who looked at the existing systems in the middle school.

He gave a sobering rundown of what is needed to upgrade the building.

Hemmelgarn said the electrical and heating and ventilation systems would have to be replaced, and the building needs a sprinkler system as well as an estimated $1.8 million in interior ceiling, flooring and trim work.

The total construction estimate, according to Hemmelgarn’s report, is $10.3 million with another $1 million in fees and miscellaneous costs.

The committee now has to go over the estimates and try to decide how much can be shaved off before asking voters to approve a bond, probably during the March 2011 Town Meeting Day vote.

"We’re going to look at all of it and see what we can maybe chip away off the bottom line," Doherty said. "But if we cut corners we’ll end up paying for it in the long run. I want it done once and I want it done right. Now we have a price tag and we can’t avoid it anymore."

Hemmelgarn warned the board that it will probably be hard to cut any more than 10 percent off of the estimate.

He said savings could be found in purchasing less expensive carpet, and the board might be able to save some of the existing ceiling and floor tile.

Still, with most of the money tied up in more expensive mechanical systems, Hemmelgarn said the board is going to have some tough choices to make before determining a dollar amount to ask from the voters.

The Rockingham School Board has been trying to address its aging middle school for more than three years.

Over the past few years the board has had to invest money addressing a series of fire code issues and the electrical system and boiler have also kept the school’s facilities staff busy.

Deficiencies in the electrical system first forced the board to ask for $10,000 to start investigating the condition of the building’s mechanical systems.

The board spent a lot of that money determining whether it made sense to build a new school or to renovate the existing one.

The board also asked the school boards in Westminster, Athens and Grafton if they wanted to be a part of the project.

But after each of those boards declined to take part, and the cost of building a new school seemed out of reach, the Rockingham board decided to move ahead with its plan to renovate the middle school.

Rockingham voters approved another $20,000 at town meeting this year to move ahead with the detailed engineering studies that led to Thursday’s meeting.

Through a series of inspections the board also found out that structurally, the Bellows Falls Middle School is in very good shape.

Each of the engineers who looked at the existing systems, however, said it was beyond time to upgrade.

Most of the mechanical systems are between 55 and 74 years old, wrote Dan Lewis of Kohler & Lewis Engineering, which is "Well beyond the normal life expectancy."

And an electrical inspection found that "the systems in place while serviceable are well beyond the expected normal life of those systems."

Doherty said the committee has been studying the project for more than a year. There will be another series of public meetings in the fall to start gathering input on the proposal.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reform-er.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.