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Rochester School Modernization Project Seeks Blank Check from Taxpayers, State

By Rodney Brown

 

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Members of the Rochester Joint Schools Construction Board (RJSCB) and officials from Savin Engineers have planned several public meetings in the upcoming weeks to allow residents to help choose which schools in the Rochester City School District will be modernized next.

The RJSCB currently oversees the Rochester School Modernization Program (RSMP), which is a joint initiative between the Rochester City School District, and the city of Rochester.

Following the board’s Jan. 19 meeting, RJSCB has scheduled two additional public meetings in order to gain community input for the program. One will be held Tuesday, Jan. 26, at Wilson Magnet High School, 501 Genesee St., and the other will be held Tuesday, Feb. 2, at East High School, 1801 E. Main St.

Both meetings have been scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

However, in addition to deciding which schools will be rebuilt next, one of the biggest issues the RJSCB has faced has been making sure the program will have enough money to continue rebuilding the designated number of schools at all.

According to the RJSCB, the RSMP will be a three-phase program, in which the district will update and improve 51 school facilities, over a 15-year period, at a total cost of approximately $1.2 billion.

Savin Engineers, in a joint engagement with Gilbane Building Company, has been selected to manage the project.

In its first phase, New York State Legislation authorized the use of $325 million for the project, with $246 million in estimated “hard” construction expenses, and $79 million in design, management, financing, and other “soft” incidental program expenses, to partially renovate, and, in some cases, completely renovate 12 schools.

However, according to RJSCB, the total expense for Phase I exceeded the $325 million maximum cost allowance (MCA) that had been set by the state.

As a result, Bergmann Associates conducted an independent evaluation of Gilbane Building Company, the project’s program manager, in August of 2013, and Gilbane officials said they faulted RCSD for the oversight.

According to Gilbane, RCSD officials changed the approved, initial architectural plan for the RSMP, which the company said originally focused on converting schools to a K-8 model.

“The incoming administration, led by former RCSD Superintendent Bolgen Vargas changed direction, objecting to this model’s functionality and cost,” the review stated. “It seems that the new RCSD leadership would also have preferred to focus on fewer buildings, completing them top to bottom.”

Consequently, following Bergmann’s evaluation, Mayor Lovely Warren announced the FBI would be conducting an investigation into all activities involving Phase I of the project, in 2014, after only her first four months in office.

Officials ultimately determined no charges for fiscal malfeasance in relationship to the project; however, Mayor Warren used her appointment power to change several members of the RJSCB board, and she also recommended Gilbane Company, and Thomas Renauto, RJSCB’s executive director, be removed from the project.

In spite of Warren’s request, both Renauto and Gilbane agreed with the new changes, which have included newly-applied monthly meetings with the superintendent, his cabinet, and the assignment of RCSD’s chief of operations, Mike Schmidt, to the project, which they said has resolved some of the complexities of the RSMP.

Prior to that, according to officials, the cost of the project had exceeded the MCA by more than $30 million, midway through Phase I.

In addition, Renauto said any cost exceeding the MCA would have to have been paid by the district, over a period of 15 years, or the exceeded cost could duck-tail into Phase II, which may result in fewer schools being renovated than the district initially planned.

Renauto also said no construction would continue until the project’s governing bodies, and residents of the local community had an opportunity to approve a new master plan, despite the fact that the state has already released the set amount of $435 million for Phase II.

“We want to focus and adjust to some of the things we miscalculated,” he stated. “The master plan is a template; it’s an evolving document. The master plan in Phase I was modified over time, based on different circumstances along the way. I think Phase II will follow the same path. The intention in Phase II was to do the entire project. We didn’t have the financing to be able to do that. The buildings needed more than $40 million in renovation, and we spent roughly half of that in most cases. The State Education Department (SED) is going to weigh in heavily on how we end up doing our project.”

Renauto said the legislation for Phase II would allow for the renovation of up to 25 schools. However, RJCSB’s new master plan has argued the designated $435 million to renovate that number of schools may be inadequate.

And, according to officials, the most important factor in the project will be preventing the exceeding costs from duck-tailing into Phase III.

“There’s no more money that’s left in Phase II,” Schmidt stated. “Communities can choose to go above the MCA. We’re trying to create more realistic opportunities, so we can provide the most enhanced schools possible, and also be good stewards of the community’s resources. We’ve made a commitment, as a district, to do everything possible to mitigate any possibility we have to tap into the local share, unless it is absolutely necessary. We’ve made a significant case to the state of New York that’s broader than just one school. There’re many buildings where the work far exceeds the MCA, and we don’t have the resources to do all the schools in Phase II, and Phase III. We don’t have the resources to maintain 51 schools across the city.”

As a result, Savin Engineers and the Gilbane Company have recently submitted a new master plan to state officials, which calls for an increase in the reimbursement level to 95 percent for all costs that may exceed the state-approved MCA. The new master plan also requests that exceeding costs be paid by local taxpayers.

Up to 40 schools will be considered for reconstruction in the RSMP during the project’s second phase. Eleven of those schools will be in the northwest quadrant of the city, 10 will be in the northeast, and 16 will be in the south.

School No. 7, East High School, Monroe High School, and School No. 16 are the four schools which have been chosen to be reconstructed in the project’s second phase.

According to RJSCB, the group should have a decision from the state regarding its new master plan by May.

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