NISHA ARORA: CMS Requires an Expeditious Rebuild

Submitted by Nisha Arora, Republican member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation

There is increasing consensus that Central Middle School requires an expeditious rebuild. As a new BET and budget committee member, I bring a fresh perspective to this long-standing discussion. I believe it is essential for us to come together as a community to get this project executed well, in a timely manner, and at a reasonable cost. Thoughtful prioritization, a robust timeline, and appropriate budgeting is necessary to achieve that objective.

The prioritization of Central Middle School has a complicated history. There have been questions raised about its structural integrity for many years. Every parent and visitor to this school can see that this building is in a state of disrepair. Yet, the 2018 Facilities Master Plan developed by the BOE scheduled a CMS rebuild for 2034. Many other projects were scheduled ahead of it. History aside, many of my colleagues on the BET today are committed to seeing this project prioritized. Last week’s engineering study has confirmed the view that this is our town’s highest priority capital project.

A robust timeline is necessary to execute a project. Most experts believe that projects of this size can be completed in two years. A project needs 3 months for feasibility, 6 months for design and engineering, and 12-18 months for construction. However, projects in our town have taken much longer. Feasibility studies, engineering, and construction all have dragged on for years. Unexpected delays, change orders and perhaps a bit of red tape have made it difficult to keep projects on track. We should work our way backward for a Fall 2024 opening of a new Central. In the past, we have reserved one full year for feasibility followed by one full year for design. In this urgent situation, we should do both in one year. I hope I am not the only one who believes that if we stay focused, we can get CMS built over the next 30 months.

Finally, good budgeting is critical to getting any project done. The Facilities Master Plan estimated $125MM for this project. For a 65-80,000 sq ft build, this estimate implied a cost of $1500/sqft+, which was exorbitant. Average elementary school construction costs in 2021 were in the $300-500/sqft range.

In 2021, a high school in Jersey City got rebuilt for $12.5MM. That same year, a high school half that size got built in NYC for $70MM. Greenwich Academy recently completed an entire campus rebuild and renovation. They budgeted 22 months and $45MM – and they built what some would consider, structural pieces of art. The disparity in construction costs is large – and anyone familiar with this industry will not be surprised. Looking ahead, we need to ensure that we have appropriate processes that reduce conflicts and keep our budget in line with market.

Experts in the industry know that design, engineering and budgeting need to work together to get a project completed on time and on budget. Broadly, design decisions should be made with respect to budget guidelines. A baseline cost of $500/sqft seems like a reasonable budget and would imply a price tag of $40MM for a new Central Middle School. Keeping costs reasonable will allow our town to complete more projects and making common sense decisions around processes will allow us to get projects done quicker.

The rebuilding of CMS is an important project for our town. We need to work together in the right spirit to execute this project. A timely execution at an appropriate cost will be a significant step towards modernizing our school infrastructure.