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Thomas Jefferson Middle School

Thomas Jefferson Middle School is shown May 24, its final day in session. Students will attend Stephen Decatur Middle School next year, as Thomas Jefferson is renovated to house the district's Montessori programs. 

DECATUR — School board members are seeking a new budget breakdown for the district’s wide-ranging facilities plan after officials said a miscommunication led to a gap between how much renovations will cost and how much board members agreed to spend.

Superintendent Paul Fregeau said some estimates provided to the board did not include the cost of internal labor performed by district employees. Board members previously approved spending $500,000 to renovate Stephen Decatur Middle School, which is set to open in August with students who had previously attended Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Officials said the cost of the work as planned, including new furniture for the facility, would be roughly $300,000 more than the initial estimate.

“It’s on us that we weren’t clear,” Fregeau said. “When we brought forward the $500,000 cost for the project, we were not including the internal labor costs for that. So if we do include the internal labor, it limits a lot of what we can do at Stephen Decatur to finish that project.”

The work at Stephen Decatur is the first phase of the district’s facilities plan, which would reduce the number of buildings from 22 to 17 over the course of several years. It would also add air conditioning at all buildings and increase the capacity for some of the most popular programs.

Administration estimates have put the total cost at $55 million, but board members on Tuesday expressed confusion and concern about the accuracy of that figure.

Board President Beth Nolan said she didn’t feel board members had a full understanding of the scope of the work.

“What is the true cost of this project?” she said. “We need to have some sort of revised total budget in all sources of funds before we can answer that question.”

“If (the cost) is not $55 million, we’ve got to stop saying $55 million,” board member Andrew Taylor said. “If it’s more than that, we need to say it’s more than that.”

Several board members also said they wanted the district to step up efforts to apply for grants and seek private donors for some of the construction cost. “I think we need a new document that outlines everything, so we can see what we’re looking at,” board member Beth Creighton said. “We need to start thinking about where we’re going to get all this extra money from that’s not coming from the district.”

Fregeau promised to return to the board with a detailed budget breakdown that delineated the cost of internal labor.

Board members did not vote Tuesday on whether to approve the additional $300,000 for Stephen Decatur renovations. Several expressed reservations about the higher cost, but they were also conscious of the public attention on the first element of the facilities plan. The reimagining of school buildings is just one part of the district’s larger strategic plan, which aims to turn the city’s public schools into a “destination district” for families.

“This is a really big project, and I think this particular project is a big deal,” board member Regan Lewis said. “I agree we need to stick with the policy, but I also know everybody’s watching this project and we need to be successful.”  

After more than an hour of discussion, board members agreed to take up the matter again at a future meeting after Fregeau had provided more data.

The board in April approved spending $6 million on the renovations to Thomas Jefferson Middle School. The building is set to be renovated so that it can house the district’s Montessori programs, now at Garfield Montessori School and Enterprise Elementary School, under one roof.

Contact Analisa Trofimuk at (217) 421-7985. Follow her on Twitter: @AnalisaTro

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