Construction at West Hills STEM Academy put on hold

The Bremerton School Board of Education chose to put the West Hills STEM Academy construction additions on hold for now. The project was slated to start much earlier, but financial restraints have gotten in the way.

Last Thursday, the weight of the decision fell across the room as heavy as sawdust covers a construction site. The Bremerton School District board members paused, thought quietly and then finally decided.

The construction on the West Hills STEM Academy would have to wait. Other projects needed more immediate funding, such as the leaky roof at Bremerton High School.

During a bi-monthly board meeting, the members again postponed the project due to financing issues.

Wayne Lindberg, director of finance and operations for the district, laid out the options for the board. For the project to be fully funded, it would have cost a little over $2.5 million, Lindberg said, which is more than the district currently has available for such projects.

Without a loan, that amount would have needed to have been funded through the capital levy that was approved in 2012, which has recent collections coming up in the next two months. The 2015 collection would have also been put toward the project, pushing it into a 2015 start date. Lindberg estimated that the shortfall if construction were to start in a few weeks could range between $400,000 and $700,000.

With the option to move forward with the project, Lindberg advised they take out a loan to themselves, take out an interfund loan, or transfer out of the general fund to make the project happen.

“We’re just gonna be a little bit short,” he said.

A year ago the board received a presentation from Lindberg letting them know that there would be a cash flow issue in the future when it came to the project. While it was discussed to possibly put aside a “specific reserve” for the West Hills STEM Academy, it never happened, Lindberg said.

The board deliberated and bounced questions off one another regarding other pressing issues in the district that may need the capital funds more immediately, like the Bremerton High School roof. The district has spent around $12,000 fixing the leaks in the roof that was meant to last much longer than it has.

Those funds for repairs come out of the capital levy funds, Lindberg said.

Superintendent Dr. Aaron Leavell weighed in on the topic after Director and Board President Scott Rahm asked what the priorities were and what’s changed since when the capital levy project was approved.

“I’m not sure that there’s bucket brigades all over the building. There’s a concern it’s leaking into the walls and causing different types of problems,” Leavell said, noting that the rainwater could get into the walls and wreck electricity.

Leavell said the prior administration adjusted for the academy to start moving things along for the construction. Grade levels were added and the building was switched and structured to how it would function as a true STEM school, Leavell said. But other building issues popped up in the meantime, calling for the board’s attention immediately as well, not making it an easy decision, he said.

“This has been one of those programs and one of those projects that we’ve been touting,” said Leavell. “This does become a really tough decision for you. I hate using the word “prioritizing” because that’s not really what we’re doing. What we’re doing is saying are we willing to still make that tough decision with the school district’s budget and still accomplish both projects over the next 2 years.”

Among the projects to be paid for by the capital levy include roof replacements at the high school and Crownhill Elementary School. Other items on the list included improvements to technology, energy upgrades for long-term savings and upgraded fire alarm systems. Lindberg said some of the projects are underway. Another item — the central district kitchen — has already been completed.

Some of the work at West Hills STEM Academy can possibly done this year, including sidewalks, a roof replacement on the main building, a fire alarm upgrade, and construction of a bus loop, Lindberg said. That construction work will also be considered as action items for a later meeting.

Carolynn Perkins, board member, piped up with the concern facing the board, but was the first to make a “reluctant” motion. After considering the bids of 11 different companies, including local ones, the price was still too high for the board to accept in the moment.

“Having always had a very comfortable reserve fund, I am hesitant on depleting it at this time. However, I also am a very, very, very strong advocate of the STEM academy,” said Perkins. “I’d just like to make sure we are fiscally sound and not operating on a hope and a prayer.”

Perkins made a motion not to accept the bid due to financial constraints. All other board members agreed with the motions Perkins made, except for Ken Watkins who was absent from the meeting.

The next Bremerton School Board meeting will be March 20 at 5 p.m. in the board room at the District Administration Building at 134 Marion Ave. N. in Bremerton.


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