Tough choices may lie ahead

BERRIEN SPRINGS — As next year’s start of construction on nearly $20 million worth of projects grows nearer, Berrien Springs school board members are facing decisions on whether they will cut back on costs to keep everything under budget or agree to contribute money from the district’s general fund.

Consultant Tony Leininger reported at Thursday’s meeting that the projects – which are still in the schematic design phase – are an estimated $2.5-$3 million over budget. He said his company, Carmi Design, and Wightman are looking at alternative materials and designs that could bring the costs down.

Leininger said it’s typical to be over budget at this point in the process and noted that the good economy is actually making prices go up as contractors can take their pick of projects. It’s also a matter of first listing everything people want.

“It’s not a surprise, we’ve asked you to dream big and then see what you can and can’t have,” he said.

He said Carmi and Wightman have identified over $2 million worth of savings, such as omitting a health classroom in the new indoor athletic center, getting rid of a roundabout between the new building and Sylvester Stadium, changing the height and width of the auditorium in the performing arts center and using different materials.

Leininger said members of the board’s facilities committee have also talked about taking money out of the general fund to fund some extra items. Voters approved a $19.73 million bond issue last November to fund the construction of the new indoor athletic center and new performing arts center on the edge of the high school.

Superintendent David Eichberg said it’s worthwhile for the board to consider contributing general fund money to get extra work done.

“It makes sense to invest money now beyond the scope of the projects to save money down the road,” he said. “It’s more efficient and less disruptive to do work now when equipment is on site.”

School Board President Paul Toliver said his goal with the bond issue projects is to give students and the community the facilities they deserved.

“We want to give them the Cadillac of buildings,” he said.

Toliver took time to dispel one rumor he’s heard in the community – that the district plans to build a new high school in the next seven years.

“That’s not true,” he said. “But it’s possible 15 to 20 years in the future. It’s part of our master plan.”

The district’s ability to take money out of the general fund to do extra items in connection with the bond issue projects should be enhanced if the state increases school funding as currently being talked about. Eichberg said the latest projections have per pupil funding rising by $240. The district had budgeted for a $100 per pupil increase.

In addition, Eichberg noted that district-wide enrollment appears to be stable both on campus and off campus. The district’s total enrollment with all its programs is around 7,000 students.