Public School Spends More to Build Less

St. Agnes, a private Catholic school, added twice as much new space for just a bit more money than a St. Paul public school did.

ST. PAUL, Minn. – As part of its Facilities Master Plan (FMP), St. Paul Public Schools, will undergo a massive renovation to Highland Park Elementary School in time for the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.

The FMP is a 10-year plan for renovations of school facilities across the St. Paul school district. With 7.3 million square feet of facilities across 465 acres of land, the district has a lot to keep up with, and that comes with quite the price tag on some projects.

Highland Park Elementary School is one such project enclosed in the FMP. The project will cost $17.8 million for 30,384 square feet of new construction for the building, as well as 23,192 square feet of remodeling. This includes building a new gym, converting the old gym into a cafeteria, and twelve new classrooms, among other things.

The school currently covers 41,776 square feet, and the new additions will give Highland a second floor for the first time. Weber Inc. will be doing the construction according to St. Paul Public Schools’ Facilities Director Tom Parent.

“Most of our projects have mandatory pre-bid walkthroughs. We gave all prospective contractors a chance to come walk through the building with us and have the chance to ask questions,” Parent said. “At the end of the day everyone has a large envelope they submit their bids on.”

Parent said his team goes on to review the bids and make sure everything the district is asking for is included in the bid. From there, they are required by state law to select the lowest cost bid from a “responsible bidder.” What that is exactly has been until more recently the subject of some discussion.

“That is the million dollar question,” Parent said. “Despite having the state statute that required the lowest responsible bidder, they didn’t define responsible bidder until two years ago.”

A responsible bidder must not have any known tax violations, must be prevailing wage compliant, and cannot be barred from doing business with any other state or federal government agency.

“Everything we do is publicly bid,” Parent said. “It’s a pretty rigorous process in terms of making sure we’ve got fair access.”

Plans and requests are available on the school district’s website, and requests for bids are widely advertised including in the St. Paul Legal Ledger according to Parent. Parent did not have a cost breakdown between new constructions and the remodeling portions of the project which are broken down into heavy, medium, and light remodel categories. Instead he says that Weber has broken it down in terms of the cost of materials.

In the fall of 2015, St. Agnes School, a private Catholic K-12 school in St. Paul, finished a project of similar scope, at least in terms of cost. The 50,000 square foot addition includes a double gymnasium, a 400 seat auditorium, classrooms for band, choir, and visual and performing arts classes, as well as a common area for students. The total cost of the project came in at just over Highland Elementary’s projects’, at $18 million done by McGough Construction.

“The entire project from start to finish was around $18 million,” St. Agnes’ Director of Advancement Jean Houghton said. “That includes all the equipment, lighting, everything.”

The project also involved tearing down a gym where the drain system did not work and the roof was failing among other issues. The beginning of the project began in earnest following a $10 million donation to the school from philanthropist John Nasseff and his wife Helene Houle.

St. Agnes’ bidding process was similar in nature to the one carried out by St. Paul Public Schools. The private school was not subject to the same restrictions as the public school district, and as such had more latitude for the factors they considered when selecting a contractor. Houghton said reputation of the contractors and the timeline they presented were two major factors. Cost also factored in significantly.

“That’s definitely a piece of it. We want to make sure we are honoring the intent of the donors as well as making sure we are getting as much of a value for the project as possible,” Houghton said. “When we have a certain amount of money for a project we want to make sure the total cost comes in under that.”

St. Agnes announced its intention to build their new facilities in June 2014, and had the grand opening in November of 2015, about 17 months.

“The construction window is only 10 weeks in the summer when there’s no kids around, and during the year we have a limit on what can actually do,” Parent said of the Highland Elementary project.

The additions and renovations are expected to be completed in time for the 2018-19 school year. A project summary for Highland Elementary’s construction can be found here.

Anders Koskinen