Bellingham to pay nearly $500,000 to ensure new Options High gets built on time

Tiger Construction employees, from left to right, Mike Hunholz, Kyle Brady and Malikai Knight, remove trash and debris from the construction site of Options High School on Friday, Feb. 17, in Bellingham.
Tiger Construction employees, from left to right, Mike Hunholz, Kyle Brady and Malikai Knight, remove trash and debris from the construction site of Options High School on Friday, Feb. 17, in Bellingham. eabell@bhamherald.com

Bellingham Public Schools will shell out nearly $472,000 to ensure the new Options High School building is completed on time after mistakes, site issues and weather caused months of setbacks.

Missteps the district made during the permitting process, extra site preparation and weather caused the delays, said Ron Cowan, the district’s executive director of capital projects and school facilities. A contingency fund set aside for unexpected costs will cover the new expense, Cowan said.

Since the beginning of this school year, Options students have attended classes inside Bellingham High School. The district has been banking on finishing the building by Aug. 14, allowing students to return in time for class, Cowan said. The delays pushed that completion date back to mid-October – nearly two months past the planned first day of school.

Established in 1994 as an alternative for students who don’t learn as well in traditional classroom settings, Options High School was once a set of seven portable buildings at 2015 Franklin St., just east of Bellingham High. Administrators in 2012 began planning for a permanent building on the same site.

The new building, administrators say, will be state of the art, with a small gym, theater and a commons area, which could double as a cafeteria – spaces students didn’t have with the portables.

Part of a $160 million bond voters passed in November 2013 will pay for the $21 million project. The cost of the delay brings the price tag for construction to about $16.5 million; design and permitting fees, furniture, fixtures, inspections and other expenses make up the rest of the overall cost of the project. Tiger Construction of Everson is building the school.

A completion date in October isn’t feasible, Cowan said.

All Bellingham high schools will switch to a new schedule in the coming year, which will expand the number of classes the schools will offer. As a result, the space inside Bellingham High that Options students now are using needs to be available for the teachers that the school plans to add for those new classes.

A late start to the year would drastically hinder new programs at Options, too. The school likely would struggle or be unable to hire teachers in the middle of the term for new programs it hopes to add, like aerospace manufacturing, Cowan said.

“This is a new school for these kids,” he added. “They’ve been waiting for a long time and we want them to have it right at the beginning of the year just like everybody else does.”

District made mistakes amid permitting process

Before Tiger Construction crews could even break ground, missteps in the conditional-use permitting process set the project back.

The district didn’t correctly identify the neighbors who needed to be notified about the work, Cowan said. Administrators drew up a list of addresses that needed to receive mailers, then realized that list was incomplete and drafted a new one. But they still mistakenly used the incorrect list when the mailers were first sent out.

“We had both of them in the can, but then we made a mistake,” Cowan added.

The district also didn’t post signs announcing the project in the correct place, Cowan said. A trail running along the west side of the school will be moved to run alongside Franklin, which meant that a sign should have gone right on the trail. Instead, the district posted it in front of the portables, Cowan said.

“Rightfully so, we needed to comply with the process, then the process had to start over, and that takes time,” he added.

Soil issues, weather caused further delays

Crews worked through August removing the old buildings and the blacktop at the site. The permits for the new building came in late September – just in time for the rainy season, said Jim Swansen, the project’s superintendent for Tiger Construction.

“The clay just gets gooey and you can’t do anything with it,” Swansen said of the soil at the site, which turned to mud during storms.

As crews worked around the weather, they also found the soil itself was a problem – it wouldn’t support the facility they planned to build on the site. That led to another delay that lasted about a month, Swansen said. Workers removed about 5,600 tons of soil – nearly 200 dump truck loads, Cowan said.

Administrators, Cowan said, knew by November they would need to adjust the schedule. Under the new plan, crews will spend around 60 hours a week on the site, Swansen said, rather than 40.

“These guys, they understand the urgency of that date,” he said of the Aug. 14 deadline. “They’re committed to seeing that date of completion.”

Ron Cowan’s title was corrected on March 1, 2017.

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

Five facts about the new Options High School

1. Designs depict the new Options as a state-of-the-art, two-story facility that will be able to serve 400 students.

2. The new school will offer career and technical education courses that it wasn’t able to provide as a collection of seven portable buildings.

3. The $21 million project is paid for with part of a $160 million bond voters approved in 2013.

4. Options students have been attending classes inside Bellingham High School while the new building is under construction.

5. Storage space the district once kept on the site has been moved to a building in the Irongate area.