New schools face tight deadline for reimbursements

Posted 2/8/24

Timetable to groundbreaking for new high schools

Feb 13 - retention of OPM Mid April - complete design for bid docs Late April - Out to bid for design build contractors Late May, early June - …

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New schools face tight deadline for reimbursements


Timetable to groundbreaking
for new high schools

Feb 13 - retention of OPM
Mid April - complete design for bid docs
Late April - Out to bid for design build contractors
Late May, early June - Contract awards
Late Fall - Break ground start construction.

Time is something the Warwick School Department has little of if it’s going to meet the deadline to receive 55% in state refunds to build new Toll Gate and Pilgrim high schools.

Construction of the schools must begin by June 30 to lock in the state reimbursement, which means designs for the schools need to be finalized in order for the project to be advertised for bids and for the school committee to review and award a bid or bids. At this time, if the state deadline that was already extended by state legislation pushed by House Speaker and Warwick Representative K. Joseph Shekarchi isn’t met, reimbursement would drop to 35%, virtually shelving the new schools, as  the mayor won’t support additional bonding.

Putting a shovel in the ground by the end of June may not seem that big of a deal, after all there’s almost five months to do it.

“To do the drawings to build a school needs a minimum of a year,” Steve Gothberg, school director of capital projects and construction said Friday in an hour-long interview. He outlined the timetable for the $350 million project and the challenges of delivering schools that meet Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) requirements, plus needs as set forth by Warwick educators, within the budget.

What’s the delay?

So, how did the city get off to a late start?

With inflation pushing up costs daily, supply chains breaking and other municipalities having to return to voters to gain additional funding, residents questioned how the schools could be built and whether the taxpayers could afford them. In doing due diligence to release the funding approved at the 2022 polls, the money for drawing those plans didn’t become available until September. The schools were behind the eight ball. The process needed to shift into high gear.

Plans have moved well beyond the conceptual stage displayed at community meetings and forums prior to the November 2022 vote on the $350 million. The focus has been on efficiencies to drive down costs and keep the overall project on target. Gothberg says it’s about reducing square footage without sacrificing the educational outcomes of the schools. With some repositioning and redesign of components at Toll Gate — the new school will be built uphill from the existing school, at the site of existing athletic facilities — architects have significantly reduced the need to remove ledge. As the new school moves toward completion, the parking lots will be transformed into athletic fields. The Warwick Area Career and Tech Center remains and there will be a bridge connecting it to the school.

The same process of building the new school on the existing athletic fields and then demolishing the existing building will be used at Pilgrim. Gothberg is wrestling with the issue of providing the best possible athletic fields at alternate locations during construction and the transition.

Recently elected School Committee chairman Shaun Galligan remains fully committed to the new schools and congratulated the building subcommittee on the work done. He is impressed by the reconfiguration of Toll Gate to avoid the costly removal of ledge.

Initially the plan called for the schematic design of the schools, advertising for bids, awarding a bid and building the schools. Time doesn’t allow for the design/bid/build model so the department is using a hybrid design/build process. Under design/build the contractor’s architects would design the school. The hybrid model keeps the architects who did the conceptual drawings — Saam Architecture and Saccoccio Associates — on the job.

There would still be a bid process, which would be advertised in mid-April. General contractors would look at the job (they could bid on one school or both projects). Gothberg favors a two-bid process as it would open bidding to more contractors. A concern is that such a large project would limit the pool of contractors capable of bonding such a large contract. To coordinate this process, Gothberg and his assistant would have the help of an OPM (owner’s project manager). As Gothberg explains, the OPM has a team — of architects, engineers and other professionals — that stays with the project to meet the parameters, including the budget, set by the department. The OPM would play an important role in recommending a contractor or contractors for the schools.

Selecting an OPM

Work on retaining an OPM started with requests for qualifications. The department received six OPM proposals that the building committee narrowed down to three candidates for interviews. The two-stage selection process involved presentations with questions from the committee by each of the three and then submission of fees. Proposed fees were in the range of $4 million to $5 million over the four year project. The School Committee will hear and vote on the administration’s recommendation on Feb. 13.

Former School Committee chair and chair of the building subcommittee, David Testa, was pleased by the assessment of the three candidates that the two schools can be built within the budget.

“Everyone knows it’s got to be managed to the budget … it was made clear to everybody, not a penny over,” Testa said.

Gothberg will work with the OPM to find efficiencies to keep the project on schedule and on budget. Gothberg has had a good taste of what to expect with scheduled upgrades and reconstruction of elementary and middle schools that started before the pandemic. Inflation pushed cost estimates off the charts. Supply chains were ruptured and materials were difficult to obtain at any price.

It taught him to plan and make purchases well in advance. For example, federal guidelines require schools to have hurricane windows within one-and-a-half miles of the bay. The windows can take up to 32 weeks for delivery. Electrical switches likewise require a lot of lead time and there’s no knowing when the department will get primary service transformers from Rhode Island Energy. This past summer, as Ahlborg Construction was in a race to complete renovations to Warwick Neck School, delays in the delivery of windows and the transformer threatened to postpone the start of school. It was that close.

“You need to design well (and) well ahead of time,” Gothberg said. He also seeks bids early when it comes to subcontract work and procuring materials and equipment.

In some cases, which would also be a consideration for the OPM, Gothberg said, “it may make sense to buy something early to get the best price” in addition to knowing you have it when needed.

In search for assistant director

Meanwhile, Gothberg, who estimates he works between 60 and 70 hours a week, is looking to fill the second-in-command position that opened up when William Marcarello left to take a job in Ohio.  Marcarello’s position was paid with bonding for elementary and middle school projects, but Gothberg wasn’t comfortable promising him a job would continue while uncertain whether funds for the high schools would be released.

The department posted the position of assistant director of capital construction. Gothberg said he has two highly qualified applicants. He intends to groom the assistant director as his successor. Gothberg is 71 and aims to retire in a couple to three years. As a product of the Warwick school system — Gothberg graduated from Pilgrim — he wants to give back to the community; he wants good schools and he wants to see the new high schools done right. He believes they will drive Warwick as a place to live, raise a family, start a business and build a future.

He praises the work of Kevin Oliver, who oversees the department’s building and maintenance staff who have played an integral role during the renovation of schools including the relocation of schools — Sherman and Oakland Beach — to the former Gorton Junior High School during major renovations.

“He does a remarkable job,” he said.  Gothberg gives kudos to Shekarchi for not only going to bat for additional reimbursement funds but extended deadlines on school construction for Warwick and the whole state.

Bottom line, as he has been asked many times, can the schools be built for $350 million?

“I believe we can do it.”

school, deadline, reimbursement


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