By Les Zaitz
VALE – Jim Howard pressed for details on the door knobs to be used in Vale’s new middle school.
He questioned architects recently about how the door knobs would function in a school. He wanted assurances the knobs would be good quality.
Door knobs might seem a small detail in a school building, but Howard is doing a lot of questioning these days.
He took over Monday as interim superintendent of the Vale School District. He inherited the job of pushing ahead with the new middle school. Taxpayers last fall approved higher taxes to fund the project, assured they would get a new building to replace a leaking, leaning school now housing the middle school.
“I feel sure that we’re going to get substantially what the people voted on,” Howard said in his first official day on the job.
Howard’s optimism is tempered. He knows costs have to come down for the middle school to get done with the money the school district has on hand. He said the uncertainty about future construction costs could mean even more school features would have to be eliminated.
“The risk is there,” he said.
Questions have been emerging in recent weeks about the school project, many asked by Alisha McBride. She’s the principal of Vale Elementary School who has been acting as superintendent in recent weeks.
She authored a sobering Sept. 6 memo to school district officials, chronicling high costs for the new middle school and the apparent lack of money for the district to finish other key projects.
“I fear that we are going to find ourselves with an unfinished project and zero funds remaining,” McBride wrote.
She said the price tag for the middle school stood at $11.6 million. That’s after architects recommended cutting out $1.5 million in features, including a wrestling room, a special education room and some bleachers. The district had expected the school to cost about $10 million.
McBride said she made the assessment to alert school officials to potential money problems instead of waiting to see how the numbers penciled out.
“I am not a risk taker,” she said.
Now, Howard is doubling back on the planning done so far to understand why costs are high and what can be scaled back. He has questioned a $75,000 fee for the architects to oversee the project. That oversight role was given to Steele Associates LLC of Bend under circumstances not clearly documented in school district files, according to McBride.
Howard said he doesn’t know the basis for the fee or what project management services have been provided to the district. Scott Steele, owner of the firm, last week told the Malheur Enterprise that previous news reporting on the contract was inflammatory but that he wouldn’t respond to questions. He didn’t respond to subsequent written questions about the project management fee and other elements of the Vale project.
Howard hopes a sharper pencil will produce savings to pay for the wrestling room. The current middle school has one.
Howard and McBride are less certain money will be found to cover two other major costs.
One is the planned remodeling the cafeteria at Vale High School.
Scott Linenberger, district superintendent until July, said earlier such a project would cost $270,000. McBride and Howard said it doesn’t appear there is money for that. Middle school students now eat in the elementary school cafeteria.
The district also might not have money to tear down the old middle school, something voters were told would happen if they approved the bond. McBride and Howard said they could find no estimate in district records on what that work would cost.
Howard said the district would tackle those challenges after the middle school plan is settled.
McBride said district patrons already have gotten about $350,000 in projects promised as part of the bond – improved fire systems, door upgrades and roof repairs.
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