Spalding Park project's budget overage not necessarily sign of things to come

Spalding Park project's budget overage not necessarily sign of things to come

CHAMPAIGN — Is a $254,000 budget overage for Unit 4's Spalding Park project — one of the first in the district's massive referendum package — a sign of things to come?

District officials say it's not as simple as a yes-or-no answer.

Approved by voters in 2016, the school facilities package included a taxpayer commitment of $183.4 million in funding, as well as a timeline for all of the anticipated projects, ranging from an expansion of Central High School to a complete rebuild of Dr. Howard Elementary. But nearly two years removed from the vote, officials say it's not possible to expect every project to fit within financial goals set that far back — including Spalding, future site of a new baseball field, complete with batting cages and bleachers, among other amenities.

Originally projected to cost $3.6 million in 2016, the project's revised budget approved by the board now stands at $3,854,055.

"That (vote) was 2016, and here we are two years later, accepting bids, and we couldn't perfectly budget projects and stuff like that," board President Chris Kloeppel said. "That's a big piece of it: We're just so far removed from some of those original numbers that we're going to have some spots."

Not that they won't — or, in the case of the Spalding project, didn't — try, officials said.

Elizabeth Stegmaier, Unit 4's director of capital projects and planning, said estimates for Spalding had been coming in "since the fall" of last year. Even then, the figures were higher than expected.

"We had been making adjustments to the scope of the Spalding Park project all throughout the design phase as we were getting estimates," she said. "So it wasn't that when we finally went out to bid, we had this gold-plated project."

In April, Stegmaier said, the district put out a call for bids for Spalding, but they didn't come back as favorably as officials had hoped.

So the district tried again, this time removing two items from the overall project — a practice infield and an irrigation system — for comparison's sake.

"Without the alternates, we were approximately over $174,000," Stegmaier said.

Ultimately, it was determined that those two items taken out in the re-bidding process were too integral to leave out. But not every item on everyone's wish list made the final cut, Kloeppel emphasized.

"This isn't just 'Get everything, get everything,'" he said. "There were some big decisions to leave some things out."

Without an irrigation system, he said, "we would have to have someone hand-water the field. So we don't need an irrigation system, but it makes a lot of sense to put an irrigation system in a facility like that. So where we would be saving $50,000 to $60,000 by not doing it now, over the long-term, the board found there was benefit in going ahead and extending that project total for that amount. The same with the infield."

A practice infield might not seem like much, Central baseball coach John Staab said, but it will prove to be "invaluable" for the players.

"We have three teams at Central: JV, varsity and freshman," Staab said. "That game field is used almost every day once games begin. It lends itself to helping us get better, especially when there's a game being played on the main diamond.

"That means the other 35 kids (who aren't in the game) aren't relegated to the batting cages. It gives more opportunities to all players."

The Spalding project, while at a lower price point compared to the work scheduled for six school buildings, has proven to be a learning opportunity, Kloeppel said. It has led district officials to discuss preventative measures for other parts of the referendum package.

"Looking ahead to other projects, something that we talked about — I think this was mentioned in a subsequent meeting — is putting in a larger bid contingency for these other projects," he said. "I don't even know if Spalding had a true bid contingency."

Such a contingency, Stegmaier explained, is "a little bit of a relief valve," a certain percentage of money pulled from a project and set aside to cover a gap between what was budgeted and what bids for the project actually turn out to be.

"We're re-evaluating what our bid contingency is on projects, what percent that should be, and that might vary on projects," Stegmaier said.

Not everything can be planned for. In 2016, for instance, no one could have predicted a market described by board Vice President Amy Armstrong as "not hungry for work," which makes competitive bidding a challenge. Kloeppel said the district took this into consideration recently when it came time to plan the demolition of Unit 4-purchased properties in Central's neighborhood before construction begins next year.

Ultimately, Kloeppel said, the district took the stance of "let's not put those out to bid in the middle of summer. That's why we're getting those earlier in the late or early spring ... when people are needing work," he said.

But sometimes, he said, that kind of market manipulation won't be possible. There's a schedule to stick to.

"You don't want to delay these projects because the community committed funds, and we want to get results as soon as we can into the schools," Stegmaier said.

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