New school cost up to at least $108M; town officials looking for ways to cut expenses

  • Fort River Elementary School will be the site of a new elementary school, whose costs to construct have ballooned to at least $108 million, up from $97 million just six months ago. file photo

Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2023

AMHERST — A continued spike in the anticipated costs of building a new elementary school, pushing the total project to well in excess of $100 million, is prompting the Elementary School Building Committee and its design team to begin considering a series of measures to save money.

The committee learned at its meeting last Friday that the two cost estimates, finalized following a daylong reconciliation by the two estimators in early January, are pegged at $86.69 million and $87.41 million, up nearly $10 million from a $77.95 million estimate provided in June.

Factoring in a 25% increase related to so-called soft costs, the total project would cost between $108.36 million and $109.26 million, significantly higher than the $97.4 million cost estimated in June. That’s also well above the town’s not-to-exceed $100 million project cost cap set for the 105,750-square-foot, three-story building for 575 K-5 students.

The new school is scheduled to be completed for the fall of 2026 at the site of Fort River School on South East Street, and replace both that 1970s-era building and its contemporary, Wildwood School.

“None of this is pleasant for any of us,” said Donna DiNisco, president of DiNisco Design Inc. of Boston, adding that the high escalation rate of costs is still occurring and there is no end in sight.

“Even the cost estimators, we were all equally shocked by the increase in six months,” DiNisco said.

“There’s broad-based escalation that has increased the price of just about everything involved,” said Timothy Cooper, an associate with DiNisco.

The estimates come from A.M. Fogarty of Hingham, part of the DiNisco team, and PM&C, also of Hingham, which is part of the team for Anser Advisory, the town’s owner’s project manager.

Any cost-saving measures and reductions will have to be made in the coming weeks, as the building committee anticipates a Feb. 17 vote for submitting its final design to the Massachusetts School Building Authority. A presentation on the cost estimates is expected at the Town Council’s meeting on Monday. Voters are set to decide the fate of a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override in May.

DiNisco has come up with a list of potential ways to reduce costs, some of which are recommended and others that are not, including a range of interior and exterior alterations, such as reducing parking and eliminating a basketball court, lowering the first-floor elevation of the building by 12 inches and changing the materials of finishes.

“We don’t feel this is a reduction in the value of what you will be receiving,” DiNisco said.

The initial $500,000 in reductions is accompanied by a total of $4.1 million in possible cuts.

Margaret Wood, the owner’s project manager from Anser, said making Fort River a functional site has costs because of the somewhat complex topography there, including poor soils that will require loading of new materials for sufficient compaction.

Wood wrote a memo explaining the importance of making changes soon, coming up with a project budget that can be depended on for 3½ years, both for the agreement with the MSBA and for municipal bonding.

“The balancing act in this work is to find the most quality and cost-effective approach which also protects the community from future market changes,” Wood wrote.