Board members OK architectural pact for Mehlville auditorium

Franz questions Dickinson about Prop P cost overruns

By Kari Williams

The Mehlville Board of Education voted unanimously last week to approve an architectural contract and time line for a districtwide auditorium, which is slated to be completed in August 2013.

Superintendent Eric Knost said Dickinson Hussman Architects, or DHA, worked with him outside of a contract to develop the current plan for a nearly $6 million standalone auditorium on the north side of Mehlville Senior High School.

“(DHA is) taking a risk … because I see we’ve got guys doing surveys on this property so they can get to the next step so we can fine tune this and get things down to not a preliminary budget,” Knost said, “but the next phase of what those costs are going to be.”

Dwight Dickinson of DHA said C. Rallo Construction, the general contractor for a similar auditorium project at Ritenour High School, provided DHA numbers to create the preliminary budget for Mehlville’s auditorium.

“At this point, we’re just beginning to get into the real planning process so those numbers are going to get fine tuned …,” Dickinson said at the Feb. 9 board meeting.

The preliminary budget projects the auditorium will cost $5,817,190, with $182,810 left of the $6 million budget going toward Witzel Learning Center renovations.

Knost’s original auditorium proposal included renovating part of the Witzel Learning Center, but was amended due to costs nearing $7 million and because, according to Knost, there would be more demolition than renovation to the building.

The 22,700-square-foot auditorium will contain about 525 seats.

Knost said he spent the last month preparing the contractual agreement with DHA, which district attorneys have reviewed.

“I have a contract that has been thoroughly negotiated and combed through by our attorneys … I haven’t signed it because I want the board to give me the green light to sign it,” Knost said.

The board voted 7-0 last month for the auditorium project to proceed, citing the budget cannot exceed $6 million without board approval. Knost said he is adamant in not exceeding the $6 million cap.

Dickinson said part of DHA’s responsibility in a contractual obligation to the school district is to work closely with the district as the project moves forward.

“We can’t make decisions in a vacuum,” he said. “Those decisions have to be ultimately decided by the district because they do have cost implications, and that’s how we control that budget moving forward.”

Dickinson said if DHA runs into issues, company officials will meet with district representatives “and look at opportunities to get that project back in budget.”

Board member Rich Franz said he recalled cost overruns with Proposition P “of tens of millions of dollars” in the past.

Voters in November 2000 approved Proposition P, a nearly $68.4 million bond issue funded by a 49-cent tax-rate increase. However, a final budget revision approved by the Board of Education in December 2005 raised the Proposition P budget to $89,137,440 — a roughly 30.3-percent increase — more than $20.7 million over the nearly $68.4 million building-improvement program originally envisioned.

DHA served as the architect for Prop P and in January 2007, Dickinson told the district’s Proposition P Review Committee that was investigating the cost overruns that two inaccurate reports by consultants had a tremendous negative impact on the program’s initial estimate.

McCarthy Building Cos. Inc. served as the construction manager for Prop P.

“I think there may be some concern in the community that if there were cost overruns with that project that you were involved with, we want to be sure we want some type of guarantee that that’s not going to be an issue on this project,” Franz said. “I mean, I think that’s a legitimate question.”

Dickinson said he understood Franz’s concern, and when DHA takes on a project without a construction manager, it is the firm’s responsibility to manage the budget.

“Contractually, we are responsible for working with the district to maintain that budget and that’s one of the reasons why we’re going to have budgets run almost at the end of every phase that we do,” he said.

Board President Venki Palamand said unknowns should be found early, and he also understands Franz’s concern.

“You don’t want to be $5 million in and all of a sudden it’s going to be $3 million more and you’re kind of darned if you do, darned if you don’t,” Palamand said, “but fairly early in the process we’ll know, and I would rather spend the money up front and do all the engineering work and site plans and all that stuff and let’s make sure we get it right up front …”

The cost of the DHA’s services are projected to total 10 percent of the construction budget, or $427,290.

The auditorium project will be funded by utilizing savings realized through the re-funding of certificates of participation, or COPs, issued for Prop P. No additional funds will be required from the community at this time, according to Knost.

Community reaction

Four residents shared their thoughts on the auditorium during a period for public comment at last week’s meeting.

Ken Dale, who performed in school plays during high school, told the board he believes now is a bad time to build an auditorium for the district.

“When I was in school, we just had the stage up there … and we enjoyed it, and I’ve had wonderful memories,” he said, “but to spend $6 million on an edifice … I don’t think this is the time that we should do it.”

Andrea Keller, a 1981 Oakville High School graduate, said while she was involved in choir and plays, she was always told an auditorium would not exist in the district.

“In the boom times and the bad times, it’s just never seemed to be a good time in this district,” she said, “but I’m excited because as long as I can remember, the choir and the band programs … have been performing in area churches and high schools like Bayless, Affton (and) Webster.”

Kathy Hoyer, president of the Mehlville Band Parents association, said she applauds the board’s decision to move forward with the auditorium plans.

“Mehlville School District has one of the best performing arts programs in the state, yet we are one of the few districts that does not have an auditorium,” she said.

Shari Elford said many people in the community have been working to get an auditorium in the district, but it has always been a project that would go to taxpayers for funding.

“Instead of being a project that would bring the community together, it tended to be something that became a point of argument and division …,” she said. “It’s true there are a variety of opinions about how we spend district money, but I honestly look at this move as something that can bring two very different viewpoints to a middle ground and work together for a common goal.”