School board approves Sassarini project despite huge cost increase
Faced with rapidly rising construction costs, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees voted to move ahead with the building of a new multipurpose room, playground and courtyard at Sassarini Elementary School even though it will cost an estimated $9.4 million more than the more modest originally proposed project.
Trustees Melanie Blake, Cathy Coleman and Troy Knox voted in favor of funding the project, now estimated to cost $13.6 million, and trustee Anne Ching voted against it at the June 21 board meeting. Trustee John Kelly was not present.
Before the vote, Superintendent Dr. Adrian Palazuelos encouraged the board to approve the project.
“Like with any project, the first cost estimates that come through are always subject to whatever the market is calling for,” he said. “A few months ago, we were talking about construction costs of $1,000 [per square foot] or more. Now were even entering the $1,500 realm.
“Unfortunately, we’re going to continue to see that escalate. Skilled labor is at an all-time low and there are material cost and supply issues, so when we have the ability to move on a project that we’ve vetted and worked with our experts on, I’m going to do everything possible to make sure we expedite the consideration before you.”
This project is part of a Master Plan of district construction projects resulting from the passage of Measure E, a $120 million school bond issue that was passed in November 2016 by 68.8% of Sonoma Valley voters. The anticipated cost of all Measure E projects now totals $120,463,716, which is $463,716 more than the bond issue provided.
The Sassarini construction was on the initial list of projects that were approved by the board and was estimated to cost $4.2 million, but each project later needed to be approved separately by the board for construction to move forward.
The list of projects didn’t include any cost inflation over time, and in 2018 prices were revised based on estimated inflation. The projected cost of the Sassarini playground work then rose to $5.1 million. Rising construction costs and other inflation subsequently required the budgeted amount to be increased to $7.4 million.
Initially, the Sassarini project involved only the modernization of the school’s multipurpose room.
“We originally thought this project was going to be a modernization, but the building is right in the middle of campus, which would have presented a tremendous amount of logistical issues,” said Bruce Abbott, the district’s associate superintendent of business services, during his presentation at the meeting. “The school would not have had a multipurpose room for a year.”
Abbott said that the current multipurpose room also has many design issues and that there isn’t a central meeting place at Sassarini.
“We came up with the idea of building a second multipurpose room that would involve demolishing the current one and putting in a courtyard there,” he said, adding that a new playground was also added to the plan because the current one is “in terrible shape, broken and patched up.”
Due to continuing construction cost escalations and the expansion of the project, it now will cost an estimated $13.6 million.
Abbott said that the project, which will feature an outdoor and indoor stage in the multipurpose room, will change the whole look and feel of the inner part of the campus.
Ching voiced concerns about approving the project, though.
“I’m definitely supportive of Sassarini having a new facility,” she said. “I think that is really important. But I think it’s very irresponsible of us to proceed on such a large capital project that has such a huge cost escalation when we have so many unknown factors out there.
“We haven’t come to any decisions or had any discussions about the ramifications of declining enrollment [in the district] and I don’t want to assume any foregone conclusions about how that discussion and decision-making process is going to turn out. I would be happy to put this project on hold while we come up with our strategic planning document.”
Ching also asked why the cost of the Sassarini project is so much higher than a project at El Verano Elementary School in which a multiuse building and a drop-off/parking area were added for $9.6 million. Abbott said that there has been “extreme” cost inflation since then, that there weren’t demolition and removal needs in the El Verano project and that a new courtyard wasn’t included.
Blake noted that the board has a long history of approving facility project at other schools.
“Sassarini desperately needs this space for their kids, and there’s no way I’m going to delay it because if we do, we would be delaying it for a year,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, delay is to deny and I’m not going to deny Sassarini the same improvement every other school has gotten.”