Cost estimate for new Bluffton high school grows by $18M

A bird's-eye rendering of the planned May River High School in Bluffton.
A bird's-eye rendering of the planned May River High School in Bluffton. Submitted rendering

As construction for a new Bluffton high school prepares to get underway this fall, cost estimates have swelled by almost $20 million.

The Beaufort County School District originally estimated the school in the New Riverside area would cost about $50 million. However, more recent estimates -- and more accurate, superintendent Jeff Moss says -- put the cost closer to $68 million.

At its meeting Tuesday night, the Board of Education voted 8-3 -- with board members Jim Beckert, Michael Rivers and Geri Kinton opposing -- to allow the district to spend up to $68 million for the school's construction.

That expense will be paid with money the district is allowed to borrow.

"At this point, we're darned if we do and we're darned if we don't," board member Evva Anderson said during the meeting. "Our children are already stacked in the classrooms, and we have to do this."

When the board decided in October to build the roughly 240,000-square-foot high school with a 1,800-student capacity, it did so based on the $50 million estimate. That amount was determined by using the state's average square-foot cost to construct a high school.

However, Moss said Tuesday that those numbers were a few years old and not specific to this project.

After receiving estimates from field experts, Moss said that number is now more than 30 percent larger, but he is confident it will not increase further.

"These are better estimates because they are actually from the trades," he said. "These numbers are pretty solid, and I'm confident we can say 'to not exceed $68 million,' and I hope it will be a lot less."

Moss said the biggest increase came from site work that must be done on the land to prepare it for construction, which is estimated at almost $9 million. The area is largely marshland, and the soil needs extensive work to make it stable enough for building.

Because of those complications, the construction schedule is 22 months, Moss said. So to open the school for the 2016-17 school year, construction must begin no later than October.

While some board members understood the need for a school to accommodate Bluffton's growing enrollment, they felt the district should do more to work within the original estimate.

"So we had a budget of $50 million and we can't meet it, but every citizen has to live within their budget," Kinton said. "So what happens if this increase doesn't get approved?"

Moss said that would mean the district could not build the school it designed. The district and architects would have to return to the drawing board, most likely to design a smaller school, he said.

That's an option that should be considered, Kinton said after the meeting.

With the increase, the new school will cost about $285 per square foot. Moss said that's in line with square footage costs of other high schools recently built around the state.

The total cost estimate also could decrease as the district prepares to bid out the project in the coming weeks, Moss told the board.

Board chairman Bill Evans said taxpayers shouldn't see an increase in their bill, despite the increased cost, because the project is being funded with borrowed money. The increase will further reduce the district's borrowing capacity over the next several years, however.

Evans said the increase was a bit of a shock to the board, and he is sure some in the community will raise concerns.

"But I imagine the parents who are going to send their kids there will say, 'Build the school, and we want a complete school for our child,'" he said after the meeting.

In October, the board also decided to build a new prekindergarten through eighth-grade elementary school on Davis Road. Construction on River Ridge Academy began in June; the school is set to open by next school year.

The cost for that project was estimated at about $25 million. However, in July, the district asked for an additional $4 million for the project. Moss said that increase was because of inflation and expansion of the project.

The board approved that increase, to be funded by contingency funds left over from previous construction projects.

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