Math error nearly derails New Paltz school renovations

school HZTA mathematical error nearly sidelined New Paltz Central School District’s proposed $52 million capital project before it got to voters’ ballots in May.

It also exposed a rift on the Board of Education, which voted 4-3 to proceed with putting the renovations to a vote on May 20 — instead of delaying the vote until June.

Ruth Quinn, the school board vice president, was among the minority who favored delaying the vote. She said the timing of the discovery was troubling. School board members will vote at their next meeting on the final wording of the ballot referendum.

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“This is huge,” Quinn said. “At this point, I don’t feel like we can put it up for a May vote.”

Tim Rogers, who also voted against proceeding with a May referendum, said he didn’t understand “how an error of this magnitude gets into a final presentation.”

All of the school board members said they still supported the renovation project as a whole — which includes fixes at all four school buildings. However, Quinn, Rogers and Brian Cournoyer thought news of the error would dry up public support.

“It’s a public trust issue,” Cournoyer said.

A majority of the school board felt differently. They felt it was important to be transparent about the mistake with the public — an action which they believed would show they’ve done due diligence in double checking everything.

“It would be very disappointing just to scrap it,” Trustee Julie Tresco said.

Dominick Profaci, another board member who voted to continue the project, defended the work done by consultant KG&D Architects.

“I’m very happy with the project as it stands,” Profaci said.

Patrick Rausch praised KG&D for admitting to the mistake openly in a public forum. And he pointed out that the mistake has since been fixed.

“If you hold this up, you’re doing a disservice to taxpayers,” said Rausch, adding that delaying the vote would mean construction cost escalations.

According to Russ Davidson, with KG&D, the error occurred — in a section dealing with construction cost escalation — due to an Excel spreadsheet mistake. Something that could have easily been avoided. High school students using a mathematics reference would have been able to do a better job, but I digress.

“It’s very regrettable, but I think at the end of the day we’ve been through a long process — literally dozens and dozens of iterations of this spreadsheet. We want to get it right. We believe these are numbers that we can deliver,” Davidson said.

On March 5, the Board of Education voted 6-0 to go with a $54.89 million capital project. The error means that they voted on work equaling $60.1 million instead.

Part of that has to do with higher-than-average construction contingency and design contingency costs, the architect said.

Davidson added that the error was a wash — and the numbers were corrected in subsequent presentations to the Board of Education. Based on cost overruns on other recently built $50 million projects, the construction contingency percentages should have been lower than what the school board settled with.

With those lower percentages plugged into New Paltz’s renovation project, the figure went back to roughly $54.89 million, he said.

“We’ve double checked them since then. They’re good numbers,” the architect said.

In the past, the New Paltz Board of Education has tried to vote unanimously on large projects to convey their unity to the public. The most recent incarnation of the school board hasn’t always done that. Newer members tend to vote with their conscience and stick to their guns, favoring authenticity over a show of unity.

Rausch, the longest-serving school board member, has tried and failed to encourage more unanimous votes at the table this year. He implored his colleagues to consider what a split vote and hesitation would say to voters.

“The more we sit and talk about it, and try to show a lack of confidence in our architect, I would say you’re condemning the project,” Rausch said.

Quinn, Rogers and Cournoyer deny that they don’t trust the architectural firm. They just wanted the public to be on board for the vote, which might require more time.

In late February, Rogers and Quinn voted against adopting a district facilities master plan calling for $71.4 million in work to be done to the school buildings. They both thought the board needed more time to look over the details.

However, both voted yes on March 5 to split that $71.4 million into two phases of work — giving rise to the $54.89 million capital project.

Additionally, the three no voters all said they felt the construction project continues to have merit and they still support the scope of work agreed to on March 5.

 

Changes to the project

Following the debate over whether or not to delay the vote until June — and the split 4-3 vote — board members continued to work on the project.

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They agreed to remove some items as a cost-saving measure. For instance, the renovation project once called for a new handicapped accessible ramp at Duzine Elementary School. The current ramp is slightly too steep for state standards. Board members voted to keep the old ramp but add traction pads to the ramp adding friction to decrease speed on the ramp.

For now, the school board would also like to hold off on demolishing the 1970s wing of New Paltz Middle School. They’d also like hold off on demolishing the old district office at the middle school.

One thing is going back into the plan, however — $95,000 to pay for all new doors at Duzine Elementary School. Since most of the doors are original to the structure and about 50 years old, replacing the doors should help increase energy efficiency.

In total, the changes have trimmed the project down to approximately $52 million, according to Superintendent Maria Rice.

That’s likely what voters will see if the school board decides once and for all at their next meeting to put the issue on the ballot.

Because of that mistake, board members voted that an independent firm look over KG&D Architects budget numbers to ensure no more mistakes are lurking in the spreadsheet.

That report should be ready in time for their next meeting, allowing them to decide if the project can move forward in May after all.