FHSD Board of Education Met on Dec. 7 to Discuss the Construction and Cost Increases of the New FHN Building

Items in the store aren’t the only thing that’s gotten a little more expensive this year. 
There has been some fluctuation in the Guaranteed Price Maximum (GPM) of the new Francis Howell North building over the years since the project was bid in 2018 and Proposition S passed in June of 2020. Costs have gone from roughly $86.35 million to $164.72 million. This latest jump of nearly $80 million resulted in a Board of Education meeting being held on Dec. 7 to address why the estimated cost changed so much and what the district’s options are on how to proceed from here. 

In 2020, a $244 million bond issue called Proposition S was passed. This money was allocated for the repair of many of the buildings in the district, including an extension to Henderson Elementary and the addition of security vestibules at the entrance of every school. Along with many smaller repairs, Prop S allowed for the construction of an entirely new Francis Howell North building.

Chief Operating Officer Kevin Supple proposed a couple options on how to move forward with the project. The FHSD Board of Education met on Dec. 7 to discuss the increase in building costs for FHN. (Credit to Kyle Button)

“Many of our facilities are 30 plus years old,” Chief Operating Officer Kevin Supple said. “And while we have done our best with a very limited annual capital maintenance budget, we recognize that we need major system upgrades in buildings across the district.”

At the time when Prop S was passed, the new building was estimated to cost $93.5 million. But the GPM was reduced to $86.35 million after the designers removed some of the square footage from the design. The decision to cut the square footage was made after reviewing the student population at FHN compared to the other high schools in the district. 

“The feeling was that the new Francis Howell North would be smaller than the Francis Howell High facility because the student population was smaller,” Supple said. “In retrospect, we should not have made the square footage reduction since all of the primary building services areas, foodservice, cafeteria, toilets, mechanical rooms, corridors, etc. are still needed.”

The original design of the new FHN was based off of the Francis Howell High School building that was built in 2011, but some changes were made to this design to make it more beneficial for modern learning. After looking at zoning requirements and discussing with programs at FHN and other schools in the district, they decided that they needed to increase the square footage on the new design to make room for necessary areas, as well as space for the programs that are more unique to FHN. Some of these areas include lactation areas, robotics labs, publications rooms and wrestling rooms.

“First, the Proposition S budget was not truly reflective of the cost for a building that would support a comprehensive high school program,” Supple said. “Second, we had to add scope and square footage to address code and statutory requirements and provide support for the programs, like robotics and the multiple award winning journalism program at North.”

Along with the additional square footage, increased labor costs and high demand for workers caused by the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the large jump of the GPM. In addition, finding companies that would bid on the construction projects has been a struggle. The pandemic also resulted in the inflation of construction which means that builders are facing some of the highest prices of materials that have been seen in a while. These factors, along with the changes in building design, is why the GPM has increased by so much. 

FHSD Board of Education Director Chad Lange (second from right) listens to the patron comments during the Board meeting on Dec. 7. (Credit to Kyle Button)

“As a tradesman myself, in the field and on job sites every day, I can absolutely concur that there’s a labor shortage problem and an increase in material cost,” Board of Education Director Chad Lange said. “It is actually crazy busy with the infrastructure bill passing, the NGA site and we’ve got the Conoco refinery, WashU, BJC, Scott Air Force Base. I mean, there’s so much going on. I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon and pausing it I don’t think, in my personal opinion, is going to solve anything right now.”

To accelerate the construction, the district opted to use a Construction Manager At Risk (CMAR) process. This process is a multi-phase approach that allows for construction to start while the designs for the building are still being finalized. The CMAR process and the unfinalized designs during construction is one of the reasons why a finalized GPM could not be provided until recently. Per the CMAR,The construction process is broken up into what are called “Bid Packages”. Bid Packages are parts of the project that receive bids individually for estimated costs. The already complete Bid Packages 1-4 cost around $38 million. The bid for Package 5 is estimated to cost around $126.6 million. 

The first four bid packages gave us an indication that the cost for Francis Howell North would exceed our initial budget estimates,” Supple said. “None of us, however, anticipated that the Package 5 bids would bring that total cost close to $165 million.” 

The very high bid for the fifth and final Bid Package caused some panic. Many wondered what would be done about the FHN construction budget being exceeded. The current options up for vote during the next board meeting on Dec. 16 are to delay the building and rebid the remaining construction or to accept the GPM and proceed with construction. The Board could also choose to delay the vote to a later meeting.

FHSD community member Kevin McGuire speaks before the Board on Dec. 7. (Credit to Kyle Button)

“So why are we here?” community member Kevin McGuire said during the Board of Education meeting on Dec. 7. “Because life is unpredictable and things happen. The cost of materials and labor has gone up significantly in the last year. That means the price tag of the building is higher. The board has no control over that, I know that. You do have control over what we do now and how we proceed which is why you’re seeking our input.”

Option one on the ballot on Dec. 16 will be to accept the GMP value of Bid Package 5 as it is proposed. Accepting Package 5 would result in the construction of the new FHN to be continued. If this option were to be accepted, all projects that will be funded by Prop S will need to be reprioritized to ensure that the remaining money is used in the best way possible. The risks involved in this option include unfavorable markets, possible material procurement issues and labor shortages. 

“The only reason to pause construction is if you believe prices will come down in the near future,” McGuire said. “If you look at data from the last 15 years, construction prices almost never go down. If they dip at all in the short term, it’s not going to make up for the cost incurred by delaying the schedule.”

Option two on the ballot will be to decline the GMP value of Bid Package 5. Declining Bid Package 5 would result in the Package needing to be rebid in the future. This option would allow for time to review ways to reduce prices and scopes, as well as give the market time to possibly improve. The risks involved in this option include worsening market conditions, potentially losing SM Wilson as the General Contractor on the project and the FHN building continuing to deteriorate, which would result in more costs needed to pay for these repairs. Some believe this option is the route to go.

FHSD community member Adam Betrand speaks before the Board on Dec. 7. (Credit to Kyle Button)

“The Package 5 should be temporarily paused,” FHSD community member Adam Betrand said during the Board of Education meeting on Dec. 7. “While current work continues, SM Wilson should personally reach out to contractors for any items under three bids or is significantly out of line with estimates, bringing this information before the board with the revised GMP.”

The people of the Francis Howell District community have conflicting views of how this should be handled, but many agree that transparency and communication of plans could have been better through this entire process. FHSD currently has a web page that is to include information about Prop S and the construction process. According to Supple, current information will be added to the site soon now that they have the new GPM. This web page is supposed to help keep the people of the community informed about this project as it progresses. 

“The board must step up and do what you were voted to do,” Betrand said. “Oversee the district to the best of your ability through open, transparent discussion and represent the taxpayers of the district.”

The Board of Education will be voting on how to proceed with construction on Dec. 16 at 6:30 p.m. in the Westwood Trail Academy building in Weldon Springs, MO. This meeting will be a busy one for the Board, they will also be voting about mask mandates and possibly approving the new principal of FHN.