School board to face hard decision on January 28

By Oliver Lazenby

The ideal grandstand seems to remain just out of reach for the Blaine school district; at a January 9 special meeting, school board members heard from Zervas Architects that due to ever-escalating building costs, the district probably wouldn’t get the high school grandstand it wants without going over budget.

The grandstand is the first project the school district is tackling with money from a capital levy passed in April 2018. The district budgeted $3.146 million in levy funds for a grandstand with seats for 1,800–1,900 people and a building underneath with restrooms, a concession stand, storage and other amenities. The current high school grandstand seats about 1,200 people and has code issues.

Sharon Robinson, principal of Zervas Architects, presented an updated plan with seating for 1,600 rather than 1,900 and other cost saving measures such as a wood structure rather than aluminum. Zervas Architects created the scaled-back design after getting a cost estimate from its contractors, Robinson said.

“We were fortunate to have our contractor do that bid for us, but the numbers weren’t what we wanted to hear,” she said. “That’s why we made the really hard decision to scale back.”

Board members directed Zervas Architects to pursue options to add more seating to the plan. The biggest attendance at a football game in 2018 was 948 paying attendees, and that didn’t include students who get in with an ASB card. Blaine High School has nearly 600 students.

Board members came up with ideas including changing the portion of visitor seating from about one-third of the stadium to one-fourth and asked Zervas to look into a design that could be added onto as the
school grows.

The district plans to go out to bid in early February, and will likely decide on a plan at its January 28 school board meeting. School district superintendent Ron Spanjer said he’d direct Zervas Architects to bring a design with more seating to the upcoming meeting, and he plans to present other funding options to the board.

“All the details are still being considered, but we intend to be ready for a formal update and proposal at the January 28 meeting,” Spanjer said.

The board could face a decision between moving forward with a smaller facility than it pitched to voters or delaying the project again – an outcome that comes with no guarantee that it will be able to build a stadium if costs keep rising.

“We have to decide what’s our priority in all this,” board member Laura McKinney said at the January 9 meeting. “Is perfect going to be the enemy of the good? Are we not going to be satisfied unless we prioritize the product we want in the end?”

Increasing costs have plagued the grandstand for awhile. The district planned to fund a new grandstand with money from a $45 million bond that voters passed in February 2015, but when bids came in over budget in 2016 the school board voted to move forward on high school construction without building a new grandstand.

The 2015 plan for the stadium, which included a concrete structure for the bleachers, was estimated to cost $2.6 million at that time. Zervas’s latest design with fewer seats and other cost-saving measures is estimated to cost about $3 million.

The Blaine school district isn’t alone in struggling against increasing construction costs, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the agency that oversees public education in Washington state.

The average construction cost for school projects in Washington state went from $256.87 per square foot during the 2012-2013 school year to $373.01 per square foot last year, according to OSPI. That’s a 45 percent increase in five years.

A labor shortage and rising material costs are to blame, said Randy Newman, associate director of school facilities and organization at OSPI.

“Those are the two largest factors that we’ve seen,” he said. “It’s also true that during good economic times, school districts tend to have higher bond passage rates and there’s an increase in private construction.”

For other projects funded by the Blaine school district’s recent levy, Spanjer doesn’t expect cost increases to be as big an issue. For one thing, the district built a 10 percent per year cost increase into its cost estimates and the rest of the projects require fewer subcontractors than the grandstand’s and therefore less variables that could drive up cost.

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