TALE OF TWO SCHOOLS
SPRING MILLS – In April 2009, officials with the Marshall County School District were excited to learn the West Virginia School Building Authority had given the district $24 million for construction of the new Cameron High School.
At the same time, officials in Berkeley County were in the early stages of planning for a new high school to be built at the Spring Mills campus in Martinsburg. Though they were awarded a $100,000 planning grant for the new building, the funds acted as a commitment from the SBA to provide $25 million toward the construction of the new $53 million school.
More than four years later, both schools are completed, though the paths each district took to get there are much different.
Don Dellinger, deputy superintendent for Berkeley County Schools, said, “Practice sort of makes perfect.”
The district has grown steadily since 1996, requiring a number of new buildings to be built from the ground up, and now contains 31 buildings. The idea of a new Spring Mills High School was brought up in 2000 as part of the district’s 10-year plan. Dellinger said while all of the projects have gone smoothly, each one is easier than the last.
“We’ve been able to build and when you do it on a regular basis, you understand the pitfalls that can come around,” he said.
Following the completion of Spring Mills Primary School, the state’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified green school, the district turned its attention to the high school. Dellinger said the district had set out to follow a prototype design that they use in an effort to reduce potential issues.
Spring Mills was the second hill school to use the particular design, with the first being the new Musselman High School in Inwood. The plan also was heavily used at the new University High School in Morgantown.
“When University was building, they went to Musselman and talked to people there and asked them what was good and what they would change,” Dellinger said. “We did the same thing and asked them what they liked and what adjustments they would make, and brought those ideas back.”
After deciding exactly what the needs were for the new building, the project was put out for bid. Dellinger said the district’s location and a down economy helped the district attract numerous competitive bids , keeping bids low and quality of work high.
“We’re very satisfied with what we’ve gotten with the product coming out,” he said of the district’s numerous projects.
The building will provide 250,000 square feet over two stories and provide a new educational opportunity to an estimated 1,500 students in grades nine through 11. It is the largest such building in the state. In addition to the modern technology all schools are working to provide, the building and campus offer a band room, dance room, fitness center for staff and students, softball, baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts and an eight-lane track and football stadium, among many other features.
Hands On Approach
While planning and competitive building gave the project a good start, Dellinger said it was the county’s involvement in day-to-day operations that kept the project both on track and under budget. He said Superintendent Manny Arvon and Construction Manager Don Zepp were at the site every day, making decisions that heavily impacted construction.
“Having that project manager to oversee things made a huge difference,” Dellinger said. “We feel confident there were no shortcuts, the proper materials were used and everything was followed, crossing all of the T’s and dotting all of the I’s.”
Dellinger said Zepp made the decision to keep a portion of the gym wall open and, instead, use the area for storage and to operate a crane. He cited that as an example of foresight that saved the project time in the long run.
“It’s just little things like that where they thought ahead and planned where otherwise we would have had to bring in a much larger crane and store the materials elsewhere and spend time getting that material to and from the building,” he said. “Instead, everything was right there and handy, and that is a credit to the project management and leadership.”
The school is set to open this fall, and Dellinger said he expects the building to be fully utilized immediately.
“We just had a staff meeting where we discussed next year, and one of the things we stressed was that the school was built with the academic and instructional needs of students in mind,” he said. “When you go into the school, it’s an unbelievable structure, it’s beautiful; but everything was done in accordance with what we want to do instructionally.”
A Learning Experience
While officials in Berkeley County are gearing up for the grand opening, leaders in Marshall County are still looking into what caused delays and additional expenditures during the construction of the new Cameron school, which came in $500,000 over budget and was completed more than one year past its original completion date.
Marshall County Schools Superintendent Fred Renzella said it appears the Spring Mills project went according to plan in much the same way many of Marshall County’s 13 other building projects had: according to plan.
“The SBA commended us for bringing in these projects on time and under budget,” he said of the district’s renovation and construction projects. “It was a scenario where we were blessed with everything going right, and this last time it appears we weren’t that fortunate.”
Much like Berkeley County, Marshall County had recently constructed a LEED certified building in Hilltop Elementary. However, Renzella pointed out the need for quick construction was likely the catalyst for following similar building designs.
“With the growth they’re having, they need to build quickly,” he said. “When you have a building like that that follows an existing design, you eliminate change orders and time limit overuns, so from that vantage point, it’s good.”
However, Renzella said the board of education remains pleased with the unique design and amenities at Cameron. Additionally, he said the district will take the lessons learned and use it as a teaching opportunity.
“We all need to look at what are the lessons we learned, identify them and come to the table and acknowledge that mistakes were made,” he said. “We need to give that information to people so this doesn’t happen again.”
He said the district is already learning from the project, taking a different approach to renovations at John Marshall High School. He said the district has been working with project managers and architects and legal representation for all involved parties to create a contract that is “more favorable to the school district.”
Though Renzella, who officially retires June 30, will not be involved with the project, he said he was confident the district will continue to learn from mistakes at Cameron.
“I can assure you, the John Marshall project will go 1,000 times better,” he said.