Mike Norman

FWISD must show competence on bond projects

This is clear: Washington Heights Elementary School, built underground almost 40 years ago to shield students from the noise of nearby Meacham Field, has to be rebuilt.

Nearby residents were promised as much last year, and many joined other district voters in approving a $490 million bond package that included money for a new Washington Heights.

Now the picture is distinctly less clear, and that’s a problem for school district leaders.

What’s more, there’s a problem at Washington Heights that also affects all of the projects in that bond election.

The local construction industry is booming. That’s good in its own way, but it also means that construction costs are on the rise. The industry also faces a labor shortage.

Increasing costs mean that previous estimates on the bond projects are likely to be low, meaning plans will have to be revised to stay within the $490 million budget.

Washington Heights was budgeted for $10 million, but bids came in more like $12.5 million.

“We are in a situation that nobody predicted,” Interim Superintendent Pat Linares told the school board this week. Star-Telegram reporter Yamil Berard covered the story.

Vicki Burris, who leads the capital improvements program, said Washington Heights “is not going to be an anomaly,” and bond projects will have to be revised.

That’s not the end of the world. Construction projects often get redesigned, or “value engineered,” to reduce costs.

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After initially saying they’d recommend going ahead with the Washington Heights plans and spend the extra $2 million to $3 million required, district officials now say they’ll ask for a redesign.

Board members Jacinto Ramos and Matthew Avila were troubled — and should be.

Ramos, whose district includes Washington Heights, complained that “we’re going back to the community to say, ‘Well, sorry our numbers were off.’ ”

Avila said he wants administrators to review the entire bond package “in order to achieve the results we sold to the public.”

Ramos and Avila know the district must maintain the trust of residents or they’ll be less likely to vote for the next bond package — however many years from now that might be.

But if construction cost escalation is as bad as Linares and Burris said, it’s wishful thinking to believe the district will be able to deliver all of the projects at last year’s prices.

Still, FWISD residents aren’t completely unforgiving.

Voters want quality schools, and they want all of the projects to be delivered. But the district should be able to produce fully satisfactory redesigns.

Just as important in maintaining trust will be showing competence. That hasn’t happened with Washington Heights.

Flip-flopping, first saying the school would be built at higher cost and then saying it would be redesigned to lower those costs, doesn’t show competence.

School administrators have to demonstrate that they are in charge every step of the way and that they know what they are doing.

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