The reason that the proposed New Harriton High School is breaking the budget is so obvious even a caveman could see it. The LMSD Board and Administration will blame the cost on neighbors, unyielding Township officials and even Hurricane Katrina. While these are convenient excuses, here is the truth: the proposed building is simply too big, and therefore too expensive, even for Lower Merion.
It should have been obvious when the plans called for a 328,000 square foot building to house 1,250 students. That equates to 262.4 square feet per student vs. the national median of 162.5 for high schools under construction in 2006. It should have been obvious when the Board and Administration refused to identify even one new high school that was as big or as expensive as the proposed New Harriton on a per student basis. It should have been obvious when it was pointed out that the Educational Specifications prepared for New Harriton contained fifteen classrooms with no enrollment assigned to them.
It should have been obvious when the site became so packed with structures that the District had to buy two parcels of land on which to park the school buses. It should have been obvious when the District and its consultants had to juggle their PlanCon submittals to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (“PDE”) to avoid triggering a referendum. It should have been obvious when the initial bids for the project came in 13 percent and $9.8 million over budget.
However, the Lower Merion School District ("LMSD”) Board and Administration chose to ignore the obvious and blindly chase their dream of two brand new, extravagant high schools. Instead of listening, the Board and Administration chose to attack and discredit citizens who cared enough to attend their meetings. Instead of recognizing the problem in February, the District decided to tinker with the plans for a huge school rather than throwing them out and starting over.
Now, the revised bids are still over the District’s not to exceed budget. Worse, only one contractor submitted a bid for the general contractor portion, representing over two thirds of the total hard cost budget. It seems that the contracting community has recognized the obvious, and decided not to spend valuable time and resources bidding on an ill-conceived and ill-fated proposal.
Now, the lame duck Board and Administration have only one course of action. They must reject the bids, and terminate the contracts of the consultants who helped get us into this mess. They must return to the taxpayers the $20 million that has been collected over the past three years and diverted to construction instead of education. They must start spending some of the money that would have gone into construction on the deferred maintenance at the two existing high schools. To do anything else would be reckless and irresponsible.
The new Board that will be elected in November must start from scratch with respect to high school modernization. They must consider renovation and addition as an alternative to new construction. They must welcome input from the entire community, rather than just their hand-picked committees and supporters. They must vow to allow the citizens to vote on their recommendations via referendum, whether or not required by PDE.
Some would say that the cost of delay is too high. However, the risk of proceeding with a project that is clearly too big and too expensive is enormous. The District has admitted that it relaxed some of the original contract terms to make the project fit within its budget. Without any margin for error, this project could affect our wallets, our bond rating, our reputation and, most importantly, our students.
Sure we are at the end of a long process, and can see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, if we proceed with the proposed plan, the light will assuredly prove to be that of an oncoming train. It’s obvious.
Stephen J. Gleason