A Pocatello man running for a seat on the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 Board of Trustees says the district has been “reckless” in its handling of the Pocatello High School remodeling project.
Eric Stewart is running against James “Jim” Facer in the November election for the school board post currently held by Jacob Gertsch, who has decided not to run for re-election.
Stewart made his critical remarks at the school board’s Tuesday night meeting at the School District’s administrative offices prior to the board voting 4-0 to transfer all the remaining monies in its debt service fund — over $500,000 — to the school plant facilities reserve fund to pay for the remainder of the Pocatello High School renovation project.
With the transfer, the total cost of the Pocatello High improvement project is estimated at nearly $10 million.
The board, excluding Gertsch who was absent for the meeting, approved the transfer of funds after the Boise-based firm working with the district to complete the project, Hummel Architects, provided the district with a cost estimate of over $9 million for the second phase of improvements to Pocatello High School.
That amount, which will fund the construction of additional classrooms as well as a connector between the school’s two buildings, is more than twice the amount of the original estimated project cost of $4.5 million. To date, School District 25 has already spent roughly $700,000 on the first phase of the Pocatello High project that included remodeled administrative offices and a new front entrance that’s compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The school board is defending the cost of the project.
Board member Jackie Cranor said in a School District press release, “I realize the cost has increased throughout this project, but costs have increased in every market and area in recent years. Some of the cost increases the district faces are due to delays in the project, which the board was aware could happen. I still believe the project can and should be accomplished and I am proud that the board has done so without going to taxpayers to pass a bond for this much needed project.”
Stewart said he has sought and received several School District documents regarding the project because he wants to make sure Pocatello High School is worth spending millions of dollars on considering its age, and that the district is proceeding with the project correctly.
The school board first publicly discussed the additional project costs during a work session on Sept. 10, which Stewart attended.
During the work session, and in a subsequent letter to School District 25 Superintendent Doug Howell on Sept. 11, Stewart requested to examine several documents related to the Pocatello High project, including a justification of the cost increase for the second phase, a structural analysis of the school, an implementation and financial plan for the project as well as a detailed architectural report and contract complete with project goals, objectives, problems to solve, existing building conditions, alternative solutions, cost estimates and, among others, documentation of public participation.
On Monday, Stewart provided School District 25 with an additional letter that indicated the only information he received thus far was a justification of the cost increase. School District 25 officials told the Idaho State Journal on Monday that while the cost of the project has more than doubled, the overall scope of the project has substantially increased as well.
Upset that the School District had not yet provided him with all of the documents he had been seeking, Stewart said at Tuesday’s board meeting that while he supports the School District as well as Hummel Architects, “I also consider approving $9 million (in) construction contracts (for the second phase of the Pocatello High project) without supporting documentation to be a reckless use of School District 25 patrons’ money.”
Stewart said the School District did provide many additional documents about the Pocatello High project to him on Wednesday afternoon.
School District 25 spokeswoman Courtney Fisher told the Journal during a Wednesday phone interview that School District 25 Director of Business Operations Bart Reed had discussed the Pocatello High project architectural report, cost estimates and implementation and financial plans during a meeting with Stewart last week, but Stewart was not initially provided copies of the documents because he didn’t request to receive physical copies.
In his Sept. 11 letter to Howell, Stewart requested to only examine the documents and that’s why Reed personally met with him to go over those reports but did not give him the documents at that time, Fisher said.
The primary reason Stewart said he requested the various documents from the School District was to ensure that the current Pocatello High School improvement project is truly the best approach to improving the safety and overall experience of Pocatello High School students.
“My concern is that the district is getting ready to approve a $9 million construction project and the public has not been provided a cost estimate and breakdown of the construction costs, no proposed contract with the architect nor a report from the architects on the scope of work to be completed,” Stewart said. “I am concerned that they are just pulling a number out of thin air and approving it without any supporting documents.”
One document Stewart did not receive at all was a structural analysis of the existing two buildings that currently make up Pocatello High School. Fisher said Stewart did not receive that particular document because the district did not conduct an analysis of the buildings in relation to this project, nor was it required to do so because such analyses are only required in renovation or remodeling projects and the improvements set for the second phase of the Pocatello High School project include new construction — the building of the connector and classrooms.
“We do annual building and safety inspections for all of our school district facilities and make updates based on the information that’s provided in those inspections,” Fisher said. “So (Pocatello High School) is safe by all standards.”
Stewart said he believes a structural analysis of Pocatello High School would have benefited this improvement project because it would have presented School District officials with a snapshot of the useful life of Pocatello High School and whether a nearly $10 million improvement to the building is the best solution, considering much of the school, which was essentially rebuilt in 1939 following a 1914 fire, is at least 80 years old.
“I am concerned that Pocatello High School was first built in the 1890s and later renovated in the 1930s,” Stewart said. “At some point in time, buildings become old and you dispose of them and build new buildings. I am curious what the useful life of this building is. While the outside of the building looks OK, I am concerned that the mechanical components may not be.”
Much of the mechanical workings inside Pocatello High School were renovated in 1996 when Bannock County voters passed a $27 million bond to build Century High School. Renovations to Pocatello High School were added to that bond and the improvements included new flooring and lighting as well as a new heating, cooling and ventilation system.
While Stewart said the approach School District 25 has historically implemented in other small improvement projects over the years has been efficient and transparent, he has concerns over the way the Pocatello High remodel has been handled, especially the fact that the project has continued to grow in size and cost.
“The School District does a lot of construction projects that are small and they use a streamlined approach,” Stewart said. “That works fine for small projects. It just concerns me when you get into big projects.”
Stewart said he considers the Pocatello High School project to be significant and the School District needs to do a better job of making its case the project is needed.
Stewart continued, “Overall, I think School District 25 is a good custodian of its funds, but this happens to be an exception and it’s a big one.”
Cranor said the project is not only well worth it but is long overdue.
“This project is all about the students and we should have done this for them a long time ago,” Cranor said. “The board planned and saved money in the school plant facilities fund in order to complete this project and I am grateful the money is there and we can do it. For these reasons, I do not believe the board has been irresponsible to taxpayers.”