Millions of dollars at stake as school board decides what to do at this elementary school

What happens to a school with leaky roofs, outdated air conditioners and full classrooms? The School Board of Manatee County will make that vital decision on Tuesday evening.

Gene Witt Elementary School opened in 1993. The campus, 200 Rye Road E., is now facing a complete renovation or a full reconstruction.

While building a new school would be a logistical feat, involving the temporary relocation of more than 720 children, some board members felt the growing renovation budget was nearing the cost of a brand new campus.

However, it seems a total reconstruction would require approval from the Florida Department of Education, and a renovation would allow students to remain on campus while the project takes place over 18 to 24 months.

Regardless of the school board’s decision, the need for action is great, said Jane Dreger, director of construction services for the school district.

“When it rains, there are dozens of leaks throughout the campus,” she said. “Sometimes what we think is a roof leak is actually a piece of equipment leaking.”

Dreger said the original intention was to renovate Witt Elementary and build additional classroom space, a project that started with a “placeholder budget” of $17 million. The cost of site work — clearing land and preparing the foundation, for example — had yet to be factored in to the initial budget, and the same is true for other project requirements.

The district negotiated with several companies in late 2017. Four months later, the school board approved contracts with the construction manager, Halfacre Construction Company, along with the architecture and engineering firm, Williamson Dacar Associates.

An increased budget of $20.4 million, the supposed cost of fully renovating and expanding Witt Elementary, was established in September 2018. Over the next six months, the school board approved several plans from the architects, along with a “partial guaranteed maximum price” from the construction company.

But last June, after receiving the final construction documents and soliciting bids from subcontractors, district officials learned they would need more than $25 million to realize their plans. It was an increase of more than 22 percent over the budget approved nine months prior.

In an interview on Wednesday afternoon, Dreger said two factors made it hard to create a budget that holds up over time.

“We used to be much better at it when construction prices weren’t rising 6 to 11 percent per year and there wasn’t such a critical shortage of workforce. It’s almost like pricing a commodity now,” said Dreger, head of construction for the school district.

Dreger said she held a meeting with Superintendent Cynthia Saunders, who wanted the budget to remain at $20.4 million. Dreger then scaled back the plans and presented two options to the school board last month: the “some now, some later” plan and the “all in” plan.

For the current budget, Dreger said the team could build an eight-classroom wing, repair the troubled roofs and complete other needed renovations at the school. But when it came to other aspects of the project, such as the full replacement of Witt Elementary’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, only certain buildings would get an upgrade.

If the school board approved an additional $3 million, bringing the total budget to $23.4 million, the district could realize its full plan, she continued. In response, board member Scott Hopes pointed to the $28 million budget that paid for Barbara Harvey Elementary, which opened this year.

According to a recent study of district facilities, Witt Elementary could be replaced for several million dollars less than Barbara Harvey Elementary, closing the gap between the cost to renovate and the price of reconstruction.

Instead of renovating Witt Elementary and its seven buildings, Hopes said the district could build a newer, more consolidated campus, making it easier to navigate and to control security.

“We can put new fixtures in the bathrooms,” Hopes said of the renovations. “When the day is done, these kids, their time and motion is going to be the same as it was 20 years ago. They’re going to leave a building to go to another building, and we’re going to need eyes and ears on them.”

The conversation frustrated Vice-Chair Gina Messenger, who inquired about the drastic increase in renovation costs.

“I’m having a real struggle with knowing I approved $20.4 million since more than a year ago, and now I’m being told, well, that number wasn’t right,” she said. “I honestly feel like I’ve been lied to.”

“I promise you, I would not lie to any one of you,” Dreger responded. “I am a taxpayer. I am a parent, and I feel exactly the way that you do.”

Later in the workshop, Messenger said she was frustrated not with one person, but the district’s overall budgeting process. The board often approves spending, locking them into a construction job or other project, and then costs often grow in the final hour, she explained.

“I want to apologize if I came across as if I was attacking you,” Messenger said to the construction director. “That’s not my goal. I am very frustrated, and it’s not necessarily even at this situation, but multiple situations I’ve seen this board run into in the last few years.”

Board members have several factors to consider at the 5:45 p.m. meeting on Tuesday. Are they comfortable changing from a renovation to a reconstruction when approximately $4 million was already spent on designs, immediate needs and land preparation?

And will the Florida DOE approve the demolition of a school that’s only 26 years old? If the board chooses reconstruction, the district will move forward with a “Castaldi Analysis” to determine whether a new campus is more beneficial than a renovation.

As parents greeted their children outside the school on Wednesday afternoon, several families said they hoped to remain at the campus. Lindsey Ryan has a son at Witt Elementary, less that one mile from their home, and reconstruction would complicate their weekly routine.

“That would mean our students and parents and teachers would be displaced for up to two years and I think, logistically, that would be a nightmare,” she said.

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.