It’s not often that three local boards get together, but last week saw just such an occasion. Those that were starting to get nervous about the potential fate of the auditorium for Westmoreland County’s new high school can breathe a sigh of relief. A change order had been in the works to, essentially, give the auditorium everything that makes it an auditorium, from the theater seating and curtains to the lighting, flooring, stage and more.

The change order, due to its sheer size, necessitated a meeting between not just the School Board, but also the Board of Supervisors and the Industrial Development Authority. Paul Klee, the representative from Grimm & Parker, was also present, courtesy of a conference call, along with multiple representatives from Branch Builds, the company contracted with building the new high school. Todd Demetriou, a Senior Project Manager for Branch Builds, did the primary presentation.

Up until last week, the plan for the auditorium on paper was going to essentially be an empty concrete room. According to Klee, various items were excluded and listed as add-ons back on bid day, since they couldn’t afford them at the time.

“But now, with this change order, they can be added back in,” Klee explained.

Back on bid day, the price tag for the theater came out to $2,642,000. It was eventually value-engineered down to $1,695,000, before arriving at the current change order tally of $1,561,911.51. Among the things that got tinkered with was the lowering of the auditorium ceiling by 7 feet, the removal of catwalks, the elevator and several other pieces that were deemed superfluous. Klee was adamant that once the change order was complete and the auditorium constructed, the school would have a lovely theater.

“It’s been quite an effort by the team to get this down,” Demetriou explained. “It’s an effort not just by our team but the School Board, Mr. Risavi and his team as well.”

The other reason the change order came in while the main building is still being constructed, as opposed to being completed by itself later, is a very simple reason: the price will not be getting any lower, and a delay will just let it creep onwards and upwards. If the construction goes outside the general contract, it will take at least another $112,000 per month to complete it. This, along with the mark-ups, would increase the price tag by another $3-400,000 if the auditorium’s completion was held off on. Essentially, the county would have to go to bid with another contractor all over again.

Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman W.W. Hynson chimed in not long after the presentation was done, laying out his concerns, particularly since 2020 had been the year of unforeseen circumstances for just about everyone.

“Timing is everything. What concerns me is that everyone is there until February 2022. I won’t say I’m the tightest man in the county, but I am thrifty. None of us knew that COVID-19 was coming, and none of us knew about the downturn in the economy. I know roughly how much money we’ll be short this year, but by law we have to have our books balanced by May, and this is March. I would feel a whole lot more relaxed if I knew what my shortfall was before I say yes to an extension on spending money. This is the time to do it, if we can do it, but my job as a Supervisor is spending our taxpayer’s money wisely. We already went to the taxpayer to get the money we needed, and I’m not going back to them for this. I feel like I can make a wise decision 60 days from now.”

While it took some time for all three boards to arrive at their decision, the approval from each board was universal, with Supervisor Russ Culver indicating that the events of the meeting had gone a long way to smoothing out any ruffled feathers he might have had. With the change order now approved, Branch Builds can now order up all the component parts of the auditorium and have it completed alongside the rest of the school. 

One of the other primary remaining mystery costs is how much new equipment, sports uniforms, signage, stationary and other supplies will cost, since the School Board decided to not bring the old Washington & Lee High School’s name onto the new building, a concern which was raised by Sandra Ramsay and dismissed by Dr. Ralph Wallace back in January.

In the meantime, County Administrator Norm Risavi will be looking at securing a lower interest rate on the loans the county had to take out from Rural Development to help pay for the high school, which, if successful, should go a long way to easing the financial burden on the taxpayers as the county endeavors to pay the loans off.