School district prepares to interview architects for new Bluffton schools

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comOctober 28, 2013 

Superintendent Jeffrey Moss wasn't kidding when he told school board members he was putting together an aggressive schedule to build and open two new Bluffton-area schools as soon as possible.

The Beaufort County School District has already received proposals from more than 30 architectural firms and will interview several candidates for each school Wednesday.

Moss put out the request for qualifications, essentially an application, for the schools Oct. 3, just two days after the school board voted to build two schools in greater Bluffton -- one that will accommodate students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, as well as a new high school.

The district received 21 proposals for the elementary school and 14 for the high school by the Oct. 18 deadline, said Robert Oetting, the district's facilities, planning and construction officer.

Moss said he, Oetting and chief operational services officer Phyllis White reviewed the proposals and have selected a handful of architects for each school for interviews Wednesday.

Moss said many strong candidates submitted proposals, and it was difficult to narrow the field. Several of the architects have worked with the district before, Moss said.

"There's a lot of different things we look at when we start talking about the selection of an architect," Moss said. "It's all about historically how they've performed, if they bring projects in on time and on-budget, how much their buildings are costing the owner five to 10 years down the road, what their design will look like on the property -- just an entire host of things."

Some firms to be interviewed are interested in designing both schools. A list of the firms being interviewed and their applications have been requested, but Oetting said the district would not release that information until after the interviews are completed, so as not to interfere with the process.

A selection committee has been formed to complete the interviews. White said there are five committee members, but the district would not release their names because it doesn't want those on the committee to be approached to try and influence them.

But Oetting said it is a mix of staff and community members.

Jay Bender, legal counsel for the S.C. Press Association, said information about the committee -- for example, who is on it, when and where it meets, and what it discusses -- should be public, even if the committee then chooses to go into closed session.

After the committee interviews the candidates, it will recommend an architect to the school board.

Oetting said he hopes the committee can present a selection to the board Nov. 19 and that the board votes on it then.

None of the firms submitted a design or cost estimate for the buildings, Moss said. That will be done after an architect is selected. He said fees and costs are not discussed in the applications and interviews to allow for a fair process and selection.

The architects were provided with the general details of the projects. The elementary school will be on Davis Road with a capacity for 1,400 students. The elementary school will be in the New Riverside area with a capacity for 1,800 students. The district owns both sites.

The elementary school has a budget of $25 million, to be paid for with money set aside from a February bond issue. Moss said he expects the high school to cost between $35 million and $40 million to build. It will be paid for with money the district is allowed to borrow without a referendum.

Moss has said no tax increase will be needed to build the schools because the borrowing capacity the district needs to fund the construction already exists. However, a small tax increase might be required to operate the schools once they are built.

After an architect is selected, Moss said, another committee will be formed to discuss the schools' designs and ensure work is done on time and within budget.

Moss hopes the schools will open for the 2015-16 school year.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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