Commissioners compare school construction costs

Xavier Smith • Mar 8, 2018 at 9:16 PM

The Wilson County Commission continued its probe Thursday into the estimated $110 million cost of a new proposed high school in Mt. Juliet.

“There’s been a lot of discussion over the past several months about the fact we’re going to have to build a new school. There’s been a lot of discussion of the new school that’s being built in Maury County,” said Commissioner Jeff Joines, noting some commissioners visited Maury County to get more information.

“The cost of that school compared to the school that we’re talking about building is just a long way apart, so I thought it’d be a good idea to get the guy who is building it, which is Steve Hewlett, to come up here and explain to us about how that school compares to the school we’re trying to build,” he said.

Hewlett and Jamie Spencer with Hewlett Spencer discussed the cost of the Maury County school and the Mt. Juliet high school price tag. Maury County’s Central High School opened earlier this year, which cost $47 million to build.

The group was also tapped to build an elementary and middle school in the county, estimated to cost $65 million for both.

Spencer said one of the reasons the company is able to build schools at a lower cost than other companies is the group’s procedures, which include a guaranteed maximum price system, which features no change orders or more money than originally asked.

“Once you approve that guarantee maximum price, that job cannot come in over that. If it does, it’s on us,” said Spencer, who said the process counters the hard-bid construction manager process that is widely used in school construction.

“It’s usually always driven by an architect. The government is at risk on all the cost overruns. If something runs wrong, you’re on the line. There’s no incentive to save taxpayers money and based solely on the more you spend, the more they make,” he said.

Commissioner Bobby Franklin said he observed the process firsthand when Hewlett Spencer worked on Mt. Juliet schools, noting the group did heavy planning at the beginning of the project. Spencer elaborated on the process.

“If we’re going to put together a guaranteed maximum price and put our name on the line for it, we’ve got to sit around this table for a pretty good long while to make sure that the architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors and everybody is working on the plans at once really hard in the beginning. Because we’re giving a guaranteed maximum price, we’ve got to do our homework,” he said.

Wilson County finance director Aaron Maynard asked about the negatives of the group’s process.

“What I’m concerned about your model is, if you’re going to get 20 percent of whatever you save me, how does that not incentivize you to use subpar materials since you only have four years to worry about it anyways?” Maynard asked.

“Every job that we’ve done, there’s an independent inspector that comes alongside with your architect to make sure that you’re getting what you’re paying for and that we’re not cutting,” said Hewlett, who said the group also uses an architect for oversight.

Wilson County Board of Education chairman Larry Tomlinson asked about the estimated cost per square feet for the Maury County projects, noting the district estimated $200 per square foot for the proposed Mt. Juliet high school.

“We’re building two schools for them now – an elementary and middle – and we’ve budgeted $225 per square foot when we were planning the schools. Bids come in, actually, this week, so we’ll know where we’re at now,” Spencer said.

“So, you’re saying now that it could be as much as $217?” Tomlinson asked.

“At prices right now, absolutely, 100 percent,” Spencer said.

Hewlett considered the cost comparisons between the Central High School and proposed Mt. Juliet high school “apples to oranges” due to the omission or inclusion of furniture, fixtures and equipment, sporting facilities and other unequal factors.

The commission approved $1.55 million last year for Wilson County Schools to conduct design services for a potential new high school in Mt. Juliet.

The group also amended the resolution to require the district to put the project out for bid before it approves funds for construction. The design authorization does not signify the groups’ commitment to spend $110 million for a new high school, which is the estimated cost. 

Maynard said last year it would cost an additional 12-18 cents on the property tax rate to fund a new high school in Mt. Juliet, unless a new funding source is found, dependent upon how the debt payment is structured.

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said the county was on schedule with the district’s building plan, introduced two years ago, and the $1.5 million commitment would keep the county on par with the plans if the commission agrees to fund the Mt. Juliet high school in the first half of this year.

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