The new F.H. Collins needs a do over

As an F.H. alumni I hate to say it, but the F.

As an F.H. alumni I hate to say it, but the F.H. Collins reconstruction project should be halted and the plans redone to be cheaper and less disruptive to students and teachers.

They just opened the bids for the main part of the project, which has a budget of $38.6 million (not to be confused with the overall budget of around $56 million, which includes everything from planning to furniture).

The lowest bid was $47.8 million, or over $9 million over budget. And that doesn’t count any further cost over-runs in the future.

I was on F.H.‘s school council when the government initiated the project. And I have recently spoken to project managers, architects and contractors, some involved with the project and others merely staring from the sidelines in horror.

The project has been flawed from the beginning. The design is too fancy, with lots of expensive glass walls, curving construction and long roof spans. Planners chose to build it on top of the current gym and right beside the school, literally within feet of classrooms, which will continue to be occupied during construction.

Construction will take several years, during which time the school won’t have a gym. The contractor staging area is the lower soccer field, a big distance from the construction site. Students going to the field for gym will cross the path that construction equipment will take from the staging area to the site.

The result is a complex and very costly project. It is worth noting that the government of Alberta announced in 2009 that it hired Clark Builders to design and build four high schools handling almost 5,000 students for less than $100 million. That’s less than $25 million per school, versus the $56 million the Yukon government budgeted.

Sure, things are cheaper in Alberta, they got a bulk discount and the schools probably aren’t going to win any architecture awards. But less than half the cost? What are our officials thinking?

We may receive generous transfer payments from Ottawa, but that doesn’t mean we can spend eye-popping and unnecessary amounts without a good reason. Every $10 million the government over-spends on F.H. is money that is taken away from more teachers, more nurses or some other worthy program.

For the do-over, they should look at two options. Note that parents on the F.H. school council and people on the building advisory committee suggested various versions of these ideas several times over the last few years, but were ignored.

Option one is to build a simpler design with the same rooms and facilities, but on the skateboard park or upper field well away from the current school. This will be easier and cheaper for contractors. Students will have a two-minute walk to the existing shop wing, which would stay in place. Some of the savings should be ploughed back into fixing up that building, and operating it as a standalone trades centre much like the Wood Street Centre offers music and drama.

Option two is to keep both the current shop wing and the current gym, and to build the new lobby and classrooms where the staff parking lot is now. The new building would connect to the shop wing at one end and the gym at the other. The only thing that would have to be changed in the gym is that the main entrances would be on the south side.

Since millions would be saved not tearing down the old gym and building a new one mostly on top of it (the current plan), maybe a theatre for drama and public events could be included like at the Juneau high school.

Management of the project should also be very different. There needs to be a strong steering committee, composed of senior officials experienced in large projects from other departments, F.H. administrators and independent voices from outside government. Think how differently the current plan would have turned out if a strong-minded mining CEO or commercial real estate executive had been at the table. This steering committee needs to have real powers to approve plans and budgets to ensure officials stay on track.

But a project like this gathers its own momentum. Inside government, there will be three arguments in favour of continuing the project.

The first is that the government has already spent millions on planning, architects and site preparation. True enough. But the saying “throwing good money after bad” comes to mind. It is better in the long run to spend a few million dollars re-planning the new F.H., if it ends up saving us far more and getting a better school at the end.

The second is that students and teachers will be forced to live in the dilapidated old F.H. for a few more years. Again, true enough. But, sadly for my younger children who would have gone to the new school, it is better if they endure the old building a bit longer so we have the right building for the next 50 years.

The third reason is that hitting the “stop” button will be embarrassing to the senior officials and politicians who made the decisions so far. This is perhaps the biggest argument inside government in favour of ploughing ahead. But too bad for them, I say. We are talking millions in public money here.

We’ll see what the government does. If they do end up going ahead, there remains one possibility to save a few bucks. Everyone knows that the auditor general will be issuing a scathing report on this project in 2015, so at least the AG’s staff can book their flights to Whitehorse early and lock in some low fares.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.

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