Editorial: Tread gently on school building surplus

Posted 11/27/19

The Westport School Building Committee should know better than anybody that fortunes can turn on a dime.

And for that very reason, this committee charged with guiding the town’s $97 million …

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Editorial: Tread gently on school building surplus

Posted

The Westport School Building Committee should know better than anybody that fortunes can turn on a dime.

And for that very reason, this committee charged with guiding the town’s $97 million new school to completion would do well to hold tight to its newfound ‘wealth.’

It’s been a roller coaster ride for this immense project. The jubilation of voter approval gave way to the dismay of initial bids that came in $10 million over budget. Much painful slicing and dicing later, the job is back on budget and foundations are going in. 

Most recent bidding, in fact, has produced a $2-plus million surplus, heady news that has had a predictable result.

A member of the construction team greeted the revelation with blunt words of caution that all would be wise to heed — “This doesn’t mean you can go crazy and start adding crap back in.”

Everybody chuckled at that one and then, at the very next meeting, came debate over doors.

Tall interior doors, like what the architect wanted from the start, are well worth the $40,000 that would be saved by going with the shorter ones that were among the suggested cuts, advocates said. It’s a drop in the big-picture bucket and would make this a better school in the long run.

They are probably right, and generations of students to come may benefit (the taller doors were approved by 7-6 vote).

The problem is that those cuts took out plenty of other treasured features and the regret lingers. Given the rescue of those doors, might attempts be next to revive the turreted roofs, premium bike racks and countless other niceties and necessities that were sacrificed in the name of thrift.

Despite all the “comfort” and “confidence” in these new bid numbers, and the protections provided by hiring a Construction Manager at Risk, projects this big, this complex, have ways of springing surprises. Who knew, for instance, that the Department of Environmental Protection would step in a couple of weeks ago and forbid using fill from around the elementary school — a potential half-million dollar hit to the bottom line?

Perhaps, like the doors, the budget will allow reprieve for a few other lost details but this committee should proceed with utmost caution. 

For now, all would be wise to hold tight to and savor this surplus. There’s no telling what curveballs this school will deliver next.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.