As construction prices have soared over the past year, Vermont school districts are struggling to keep upcoming projects on budget and on schedule.

“From September 2020 to June (2021), we’ve seen steady monthly increases across the board,” said Bert DeLaBruere, president of the South Burlington-based construction firm ReArch Co.

DeLaBruere said softwood and plywood have seen the highest price increases, followed by metals and PVC piping, which began increasing in early January.

On the bright side, he noted the price of lumber, which had jumped more than 300% in recent months, was beginning to drop. He said he expects other commodities will begin to drop soon, too.

According to the latest commodities market figures, the price of steel is up 29% since January. Copper prices are up 23.5%. Lumber prices, meanwhile, are down 41% from the beginning of the year.

DeLaBruere attributed the spike in costs to a “perfect storm” of record-high unemployment, a supply chain disrupted by the pandemic and federal stimulus packages that motivated homeowners to spend more on home improvement projects.

At Slate Valley Unified Union School District in Rutland County, constructions costs to build a district middle school at Fair Haven Union High School have nearly quadrupled, according to Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell.

In May, the Slate Valley School Board voted to approve the $2.3 million project, which includes the creation of new classrooms and a number of improvements to the building’s aging infrastructure.

After cost estimates ballooned to $9.1 million, the board opted to scale back the project.

Olsen-Farrell said the decision “comes with significant sacrifice.”

Plans to install a new roof and improvements to the plumbing and electrical systems will be deferred. Classrooms reconfiguration have also been modified to cut costs.

However, upgrades to the building’s ventilation system remain part of the project.

“I think it’ll still achieve our objectives for the middle school, it’s just not going to be ideal,” she said.

Olsen-Farrell said renovations currently underway to the high school’s library, art room and other instructional spaces are also costing more than expected.

She said the project, which was budgeted to come in at under $500,000, has risen to more than $800,000.

The rest of the middle school project will be tackled piecemeal, said Olsen-Farrell, who noted that the district has $12 million in outstanding infrastructure needs to be addressed over the next five years. She clarified that amount was in “pre-COVID dollars.”

Olsen-Farrell said she hoped to leverage Early and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money to help cover costs.

“There are definitely, I think, some justifiable reasons for us to be using ESSER funds for this project,” she said.

She added that while the district has sought approval to apply the ESSER funds to the project, they now must wait for confirmation, which she said could affect project’s planned completion in the fall of 2022.

“I think, at a certain point, this fall if we don’t have approvals on certain things, we may have to revisit that (timeline) when we go to build the budget for (the next fiscal year),” she said. “So we kind of need an answer by then.”

While time is not on Slate Valley’s side, officials in Washington County’s Harwood Unified Union School District are hoping costs will stabilize before they break ground on a pair of multi-million-dollar projects at Harwood Union High School in Moretown and Crossett Brook middle School in Duxbury.

Similar to Slate Valley, the $55 million Harwood project will include infrastructure improvements and upgrades to the learning environment at the high school, as well as the creation of a union middle school at Crossett Brook.

Harwood School Board Chair Torrey Smith said the work will bring the building into the 21st century, stating, “The high school has really had almost no investment in more than 50 years.”

She said the district is planning to ask voters to approve a bond to pay for the project this fall.

Smith said it is currently unclear how high constructions costs will affect the project since the district is still crunching numbers.

“We’re lucky in that at least the numbers went up before we finalized our financial request from the community,” she said.

Smith said she expects the district to present a final figure to the public by September before putting a bond article on the ballot in November.

DeLaBruere, whose company is managing the Harwood project, said he expects it to stay on budget.

He said that while residential construction costs remain high — mostly because they use more wood — commercial costs are starting to come down.

“We’re seeing downturn,” he said, adding that costs are expected to continue to decrease over the next year.

DeLaBruere said the project’s timeline may work in its favor, noting that if Harwood voters approve the bond this fall, it will still be another year before the architectural engineering phase is complete.

“We’re not putting that out to bid until, let’s say, 2023,” he said. “By that time, the materials will have stabilized, we won’t have this high demand that we’re experiencing right now, and hopefully the pandemic’s behind us.”

jim.sabataso @rutlandherald.com

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