Faced with steep cost overruns, the Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 board and administrators have scaled back construction plans that were approved in April, when the board decided to move forward with $32.6 million in capital improvements paid for through the district’s roughly $100 million fund balance.

In April, the board approved plans for the renovation of 76 general education classrooms, the reconstruction of the student resource center and south cafeteria, the renovation of the student commons, the construction of all-gender bathrooms, and critical improvements to the special education space, among other capital enhancements.

In the weeks and months since, the estimated cost of the project has ballooned to around $41 million. Most of the cost overrun comes from the student resource center and south cafeteria renovations, which had originally been budgeted at $13.6 million, but by June had ballooned to $22.6 million. 

Once construction starts this summer, crews will forgo work on 30 general education classrooms slated for renovation and they won’t install a new servery with the brand new cafeteria. 

Deferring those two projects cuts around $3 million and $800,000, respectively, out of a roughly $8.4 million hole. Earlier this month, the school board approved $4 million in additional funding to fill the budget hole that remains. 

At the board of education’s June 25 meeting, Mike Carioscio, D200’s chief operations officer, said the cost overruns were primarily due to mistaken design and budget assumptions.

“One of the biggest gaps driving a significant amount of costs is the original estimate done for square footage for the student resource center was off,” Carioscio said, adding that an earlier assumption that half of the cafeteria could be remodeled while the other half was newly constructed turned out to be “not feasible.” 

The size discrepancy contributed to an unforeseen cost of $2.9 million while the mistaken assumption about the cafeteria translated into $1.1 million in cost overruns. Carioscio also explained that some critical demolition and excavation work in OPRF’s basement contributed to $3.6 million in cost overages, but that work is “already under way” and would be “prohibitively expensive” to scale back. 

The cost of the basement, however, is being funded from a pool of funds set aside to pay for 10-year life safety improvements, Carioscio said.

At that June meeting, administrators floated the idea of possibly cutting a range of improvements, such as equipment necessary for instilling solar panels on the high school’s roof, and scaling back others, such as work on the main entrance and student commons. 

But school board members declined to cut those aspects of the project, which they said were critical to the district’s approach to equity and would address some concerns brought by students and parents over the years related to how the school’s atmosphere could be more welcoming. 

Members of Imagine OPRF, the group that drafted the master plan, have also expressed how important renovations to student commons areas and the main entrance might make the environment at the school more opening and welcoming for more students. 

With those projects off-limits, board members advised district administrators in June to return with a more limited variety of options, leading to the loss of 30 renovated classrooms and the servery. 

Board members said that it might be wise to hold off on some classroom renovations until they know more about how drastically COVID-19 changes the nature of learning. 

During a special meeting on July 9, the school board voted unanimously, if reluctantly, to defer those projects and to approve an additional $4 million from the district’s fund balance to pay for the revised scope of construction.

Carioscio said that administrators will return to the board with a finalized plan that includes “more detailed” and “exact” numbers, “which will still vary” based on construction bids. 

The costs associated with the student resource center construction — the largest aspect of the first phase construction work — “will be pretty solid,” he said.

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