$84M bid jeopardizes new Northampton school plan

Above is a rendering of what the completed Northampton middle and high school project may look like from the front. Image from public presentation by Skanska.

By Stefanie Jackson – A low bid of $84 million – nearly $20 million over budget – is putting the Northampton middle and high school improvement project in jeopardy.

“The Northampton County Board of Supervisors were very disappointed that the bids for the middle/high school project were so much over the estimated cost,” Northampton County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski said Wednesday.

Northampton’s middle and high school has long been in desperate need of renovation and new construction, but now the project will be further delayed as consultants figure out why the contractor bids were so much higher than expected.

The bids were going to be discussed on Tuesday at a Northampton supervisors meeting that was canceled due to a lack of a quorum. Chair Betsy Mapp was the only county supervisor present.

Regardless, there was no discussion to be had on the middle and high school project when both bids received far exceeded $65 million, the maximum the county was willing to spend. 

The high bid was around $85 million, only about $1 million more than the low bid.

Aside from abandoning the project, which is unlikely, the only option Northampton has is to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to scale down the project and cut costs.

Northampton High School, which also houses the county’s middle school, was built in Eastville in 1954, and an addition was built in 1978.

The push to renovate or build a new high school has been going on for years, at least as early as 2007, when a structural study called “Another Brick in the Wall” was published.

In the document, a structural engineering firm reported that the 1954 building was in poor condition and the 1978 addition was still in good condition but in need of attention “in the near future.” That was 15 years ago.

Since then, repairs have been done as needed to ensure the school building is safe for students, but it took many years and tense exchanges between county and school officials before they agreed to work together toward a long-term solution to the structural issues.

A turning point was reached in 2018 when a high school revitalization committee was formed with representatives of both the local government and school division, including administrators, county supervisors, school board members, and finance directors.

Around that time, the project cost was estimated at $24 million, but it continually increased as the design process wore on. The COVID-19 pandemic also drove up the cost of materials and labor.

The final design on which contractors bid includes a brand-new middle school wing, cafeteria, auditorium, and a separate gym for the middle school, among other improvements.

The project consultants who will investigate why the contractor bids were so high are Woolpert Architecture, of Chesapeake, and Skanska Construction, which built the original structure of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

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