After many starts and stops, it appears that a high school in Baker, La., will finally be renovated, nearly six years after historic flooding swamped the town north of Baton Rouge.
The Advocate reported that Baker's school board voted unanimously June 27 to hire a contractor to make much-needed repairs to the high school and campus damaged by four days of heavy rains in August 2016.
The holdup was due to several reasons, including difficulty in lining up money for the renovation, the Baton Rouge news source noted, and the scope of the project also was shrunk by inflation. Consequently, Baker High is the last school in the Capital region inundated during those floods to be repaired.
Stuart & Company General Contractors in Baton Rouge was chosen to perform the renovations and repairs.
Twice before in the prior month, according to the Advocate, the school board considered hiring Stuart & Company but put off a vote each time because board members were concerned that there were insufficient funds set aside to renovate Baker High's band and shop rooms, which the project's architect had proposed excluding to save money.
It cost another $700,000 to add those two rooms, but despite that, the renovation's budget is still much lower than the contractor's originally bid.
The slimmed down construction cost currently stands at $19.4 million.
To bring it all within budget, the Baker school board changed more than 80 individual line items in the original specifications and added another $1 million to the project budget from the district's reserves.
Work on the downscaled project will start in July, but the five-week delay in board approval — the original plan was to have a final board vote on May 17 — may push back the renovation's completion.
The old construction schedule envisioned an updated Baker High School being finished by the end of August 2023, shortly after the start of the fall semester, but the holdups may delay the planned timeline.
Students Anxious to Get into New High School
In any case, Baker High students by then will have spent at least seven years in exile at the nearby Baker Middle school campus.
The years-long failure to get the high school back online is a sore spot with many in the Baker community.
The multi-million upgrade will modernize the campus with a mix of renovations, new construction, and demolitions. Built decades ago to accommodate 1,500 students, Baker High will shrink to a 650-student capacity. Currently, the high school has 400 students enrolled, about 150 fewer than four years ago, the Advocate noted.
Getting to Renovation's Start Has Been Complicated
After Baker High's construction bids were opened May 5, Manning Architecture, based in New Orleans, spent the next three weeks looking for design elements it could cut.
"We made some tough aesthetic choices to try to get it within budget," Dominic A. Willard, an architect with Manning, told the school board at its May 24 meeting.
For instance, the revamped construction plan now specifies installation of lower capacity HVAC systems that may struggle to keep the school cool if there is a partial failure. Also, there has been a shift to air-cooled chillers that will be placed outdoors and will likely need replacement after 20 years, a few years less than the enclosed chillers originally chosen.
The Baker school board, too, insisted on reinstating improvements to buildings D and E, as well as the inclusion of the band room and shop room.
The long delay to get to construction also has contributed to the higher overall cost, something that Baker school leaders knew when they bid it out — substantially more, as it turned out. In April 2018, the school board bid out almost the same project that eventually came in just shy of $17.5 million, $4 million less than the recent bids, but which paid for more work.
Baker decided not to accept the 2018 bids; instead, the small school district spent nearly three years trying to secure a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That deal ran aground, the Advocate reported, because the USDA would not accept the collateral the city had lined up. So, Baker turned to Red River Bank, from which it borrowed $8.2 million more for the high school renovation.
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