SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Department has to cut $4 million from the high school renovation project.
The department opened bids for the project on Feb. 23, but the lowest viable bidder – PC Construction, of South Burlington, Vt. – came in with a base bid of $43.2 million.
The city is limited to $39.2 million for construction.
On Wednesday the School Board authorized the superintendent of schools to negotiate with the contractor.
For the next month, representatives from the department and its architect, Harriman Associates of Portland, will meet with the construction company to find out where changes can be made to bring the cost down.
“The number is scary; $4 million is a lot of money,” Building Committee facilitator Ralph Baxter Jr. said Wednesday. “But now that we’re sitting and talking, we’ve got a chance.”
The renovation plan approved by voters in 2010 calls for the original school building, at the main entrance near the administrative offices, to be renovated along with Beal Gym, the South Portland Auditorium and many classrooms.
The school is expected to grow by 50 percent, from about 200,000 square feet to 300,000 square feet. The school will also be energy efficient and feature a natural gas heating and cooling system.
Dan Cecil, the lead architect on the project, apologized to the School Board on Wednesday for the deviation from his firm’s original budget.
He said he didn’t have a copy of PC Construction’s line budget projection, but said he could offer insight into a few areas that may have driven costs up.
He said Maine is entering a busy construction season. Throughout the state – from the new casino in Oxford County to a new hospital in Augusta and the new Wentworth school in Scarborough – contractors are looking to hire workers for $450 million worth of construction.
That has nearly maxed out the state’s working capacity, he said, which could drive up the labor costs for subcontractors.
Also, the price of fuel has increased about 40 cents per gallon since Harriman made its cost estimate in November, and the price of copper has increased by about 50 cents per pound.
Basically, construction costs more now than it did when Cecil and his company first drew up numbers.
“This is a very different environment from last year,” he told the School Board. “We’re sorry the numbers weren’t better, but we will close that gap.”
Cecil said Harriman has already met for a full day with representatives from PC Construction, which also has an office in Portland.
The two companies identified about 200 ways they could probably reduce costs, ranging from the nearly unnoticeable – switching out some wall cover or ceiling cover materials – to the dramatic – reducing the project length by several months, which would reduce labor costs but increase the intrusion on students and teachers.
The district will also try to find room on the high school campus for construction material storage. The contractor would like to buy all the materials needed up front, which would ultimately save money. But there’s currently not much room at the school to keep that much equipment and material.
“Perhaps we could delay construction of one of the play fields until the end of the project and provide about an acre of storage on site,” Cecil said.
PC Constructinon’s bid was the lowest of four received by the School Department. The highest bid was from JCN Construction of Manchester, N.H., which submitted a plan with a $46.6 million price tag.
School Board members on Wednesday said the initial shock of seeing even the lowest bid come in over budget had worn off, and that they are happy to do business with PC Construction.
“I’m thankful PC was the lowest bid,” board member James Gilboy said. “I’d rather give a company that’s located in Maine my business.”
“The more I think about this, the more I perceive it as a relatively minor hiccup,” board member Jeff Selser added.
The Building Committee, Cecil, Superintendent Suzanne Godin and PC Construction representatives will meet during the next few weeks to come up with a savings plan to present to the board.
On March 22, the board will vote on the amended contract. If it approves, the contract will go to the City Council for final approval on March 26.