Cost of Tacoma’s Wilson High construction climbs by 50 percent

Construction is underway at Wilson High School.
Construction is underway at Wilson High School. Courtesy

The Tacoma School Board has authorized a 50-percent increase in the total project budget for improvements at Wilson High School after bids came in higher than expected — twice.

The original estimate for the total project was $40 million, but following action by the school board Thursday, the total budget now stands at $60 million.

That figure includes not only the costs of construction, but also smaller expenses such as furnishing and equipping the new space, as well as sales tax on the project.

The Wilson project is part of a $500 million bond package approved overwhelmingly by Tacoma School District voters in 2013.

Rob Sawatzky, director of planning and construction for the school district, said officials still plan to fulfill the major work planned for Wilson, and complete the other 13 projects in the bond package, too.

“The intent is to finish everything we promised,” he said.

Sawatzky said an improving economy has generated increased activity in the construction industry — a sector that had taken a nosedive during the recession. That, in turn, means construction companies can be choosier about what work they do, and demand more for it.

“It’s supply and demand,” he said.

The current project includes a new classroom building, a new music building, a new track with spectator seating and more.

Wilson High School opened in 1958 as a campus that included 12 buildings spread over 12 acres. Over the years, the district has been working to consolidate buildings. A first phase of improvements was completed in 2006, with a single three-story building replacing five other buildings and additional portable classrooms.

$500 millionTotal size of 2013 school bond measure

In May, the first round of bids for the current phase of construction came in high. So over the summer, the school board agreed to allow the total project cost to rise to $52.5 million. The district restructured the bid by breaking portions of the project — such as the music building, video scoreboards and a cafeteria courtyard — into alternate pieces that contractors could bid on individually.

Sawatzky noted that while major school district projects in the past have attracted a dozen or more bidders, only three companies submitted proposals in the second round of bidding on the Wilson project.

When that round of bids was opened in July, they came in higher than the May bids. In August, the school board accepted a base bid by Absher Construction Co. of Puyallup for nearly $30 million. But that amount included none of the alternate projects.

Board members wanted to ensure the new music building and track and field improvements would be paid for, as well as off-site improvements (such as road resurfacing) that are required by the City of Tacoma. The school district hired an outside construction cost estimator, but that company’s projections came in higher than Absher’s alternate bids on the music building and off-site improvements.

The district went back to Absher, and the company agreed to honor pricing for the music building and off-site improvements from its July bid.

On Thursday, the board approved changes that peg the cost of the music building at about $5.4 million and the off-site improvements at $739,346. The estimated price for modernizing the track and field is $2.5 million.

$30 millionBase bid by Absher Construction, not including alternate projects

Board member Debbie Winskill said she feared that putting the project out to bid again might increase costs even more.

Asked whether the inflation in Wilson costs would endanger other planned school projects, Sawatzky said the 2013 bond included contingency funds.

Bids are expected to be submitted for a new Arlington Elementary and Science and Math Institute in 2016. The district is currently in the process of designing Mary Lyon and Browns Point elementary schools.

The new Washington Elementary School opened in September 2014. Construction has started at McCarver Elementary, Wainwright Intermediate and Stewart Middle School.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo