The sharp escalation of costs associated with St. Paul School District building projects prompted district leaders Tuesday night to call for an outside review of its facilities-management practices.
“There needs to be a change in how we operate internally,” Cedrick Baker, the district’s chief of staff, told school board members.
Board Chairwoman Zuki Ellis had asked for an update on the district’s facilities master plan after the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that its tally of the costs for 18 projects showed that the renovations and additions had exceeded 2016 estimates by a total of $179 million.
Superintendent Joe Gothard said that much of those costs reflected changes in the scope of the respective projects. But he said he was concerned about a potential lack of trust in the district’s work, and was assigning Baker to assemble the outside leadership and review team.
It was not yet known who will be on the team, or when they would offer recommendations to the state’s second-largest district.
St. Paul is nearing completion of the first wave of school makeovers made possible by a five-year, $484 million facilities plan approved by the board in 2016. Classrooms are being modernized and buildings configured in ways that re-establish them as the heart of their communities.
But with costs blowing past the district’s early estimates, many residents elsewhere now must wait longer for improvements to buildings near them.
While the cumulative effect of the costs is jarring, board members were not in the dark about the changes.
In October, board members received a report outlining many of the revised cost estimates in question when it unanimously approved a plan for five years worth of projects beginning in 2018-19. One-page summaries for each of nearly 75 buildings showed, for example, that the cost of Como Park Senior High improvements had risen from $32 million to about $45 million and that a multiyear Humboldt High project jumped in cost from an estimated $27 million to $43 million.
Asked then how costs were trending, Tom Parent, the district’s facilities director, said that tariffs posed a big question mark in terms of material costs and that the district was taking opportunities to correct longstanding issues it uncovered at some schools.
“It’s very much a moving target,” he said of annual efforts to keep on top of costs and projections.
Since then, a budget advisory committee that included citizens recommended an independent audit of the district’s contracting services and facilities budgeting to “ensure that best practices are being followed and to allow for transparency.”
In 2016, the school board put the building makeovers in motion by approving the initial five-year, $484 million facilities plan. St. Paul, unlike the majority of state school districts, does not have to win voter approval to issue bonds. The proposal approved by the board then called for the owner of a median-valued home — $151,500 at the time — to pay an additional $30 per year in taxes to cover the facilities costs.
But with resources being squeezed, the district now has set new timelines for several other big-money projects.
In addition to Como Park Senior High and Humboldt High, the first round of projects included additions to Adams Spanish Immersion, Highland Park Elementary, Horace Mann School and Linwood Monroe Arts Plus, as well as a new RiverEast Elementary and Secondary for students receiving mental health services.
The RiverEast School was built on an industrial site in the North End and cost an estimated $25.5 million.