New school on schedule but over budget

Officials estimate project will need an extra $11.2 million

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2007

Thunder Mountain High School is on schedule for completion in 2008 but will cost more than initially expected, officials say.

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At its regular meeting on Monday, the Juneau Assembly approved holding a special election on June 12 to ask voters to approve general obligation bonds to cover construction cost increases and other improvements to the project.

Officials anticipate that the $47 million, 166,000-square-foot school in the Mendenhall Valley will need nearly $11.2 million additional funding to cover cost increases and to finish the auditorium.

"What's happened is basically the cost of materials has increased over time, so an additional $8.18 million is needed to cover those costs," Craig Duncan, city finance director, said.

The auditorium will take an additional $3 million, he said.

The special election also will address other financial needs, according to project manager Sarah Lewis. Funding for an artificial turf and track and for safety improvements along Riverside Drive also will be brought before the voters, she said.

Estimates for the track and Riverside Drive improvements have not been finalized, but Duncan said initial estimates have been placed at $5 million and $4.5 million respectively.

Special election

When: June 12.

Why: Voters will be asked to approve general obligation bonds for three issues to complete Thunder Mountain High School.

How much?

• Construction increases and completion of auditorium: $11.18 million.

• Artificial turf and track: $5 million.

• Safety improvements for Riverside Drive: $4.5 million.

(Cost estimates have not been finalized by the city.)

Putting the issue before the voters would enable the school to qualify for the state's school bond reimbursement program, Duncan said. If the voters approve the general obligation bonds, the project would qualify for a 70 percent reimbursement from the state.

The city has used money from the sales tax reserve to help cover part of the construction cost. That money would return to city coffers if voters approve the bonds, Duncan said.

"Really it's a very advantageous way of paying for these costs," he said. "That $8 million, if we paid it direct, would be more than if we bonded for the project and shared it at a 70-30 basis."

School Board member Mary Becker said the school would have been more expensive if the city did not use sales tax money to help the project go out to bid when it did.

"We hope the public will agree that the city sales tax budget reserve should be reimbursed," she said.

Lewis, project manager, also hopes voters will approve the money for the auditorium; otherwise there will be a vacant area in the middle of the school, she said.

"I think it would be money very well spent to complete this part of the project so it's not an incomplete school," Lewis said. "Without the funding, the space can't be occupied. We would have to lock it up."

The $3 million would go toward seating, lighting and other amenities to make it a quality theater, she said.

"At this point, if we didn't find the funds to complete the auditorium, there would be an incomplete shell of an unusable auditorium," Lewis said.

Deb Morse, facilities planner for the school district, said some safety upgrades are needed on Riverside Drive before the school can open.

The initial plan calls for installing a traffic signal, turning lanes and improvements to sidewalks.

Despite this year's heavy snow and cold weather, the project is on schedule and is expected to be ready to open in the summer of 2008, officials said.

The weather did make sewer work difficult, said Catherine Wilkins, construction project manager.

"We do have steel going up," she said. "It's been a tough winter, but construction is proceeding."

The erection of the steel frame should continue to take shape through August, Wilkins said.

"It's extremely satisfying to see the progress made incrementally every single day," she said.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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