A sign reminds spectators of COVID-19 prevention measures as the demolition of old Leslie Middle School gets underway Wednesday, April 15 (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter).

A decision to build a larger auditorium coupled with higher-than-expected seismic and street costs have already raised by $18 million the cost of renovating South Salem High School and construction is just getting started.

That is a 27% increase over an original budget of $66 million for the work. At $84 million, the renovation will be by far the costliest package of Salem-Keizer School District projects that will expand six high schools and dozens of middle and elementary schools over the next five years.

Taxpayers won’t be on the hook for more than the $620 million bond voters already approved in the spring of 2018, paid out of property taxes. District officials said they will dip into contingency money set aside for such overruns.

The renovation will add classrooms and a new auxiliary gym to the school.

Work on the school began this spring with the demolition of the former Leslie Middle School, which until December housed Howard Street Charter school. The South Salem expansion is scheduled to be completed by the start of school in the fall of 2021.

The project has been bid out with five contracts signed, so district leaders don’t expect those costs to rise further.

“We are through or mostly through the riskiest portions of this project. We’ve demolished the building. We know what the ground is like underneath it,” said Joel Smallwood, the district’s construction program manager.

The increases have two primary causes.

First, district leaders expanded the work to be done at South after netting $65 million more than expected from a bond sale in 2018.

That gave design teams at each school the chance to recommend additions to the work that had been planned.

At South, early plans called for a new school auditorium with about 600 seats, the size of nearly all other high school auditoriums in the district, said Mike Wolfe, chief operations officer.

That would have reduced seating compared to the current Rose Auditorium, one of the larger performing arts facilities in Salem-Keizer, with room for 940 people.

Wolfe said performing arts employees stepped forward with concerns about reducing the school system’s total auditorium seating.

Those conversations made it clear Rose’s capacity was important not just for South, but for the district and Salem area as a whole. The auditorium often hosts large performances, including non-district events, Wolfe said.

“Not replacing Rose with like-sized seating would have been a big hit to the community,” he said.

The configuration for South’s auditorium was changed, adding 300 seats and $6.5 million in cost.

Seismic work added another $8 million to the project price tag, Wolfe said.

Early project designs called mostly for foundation work and roof strengthening.

“Once we had the contractor on board, we found out there was much more seismic strengthening that was needed,” Wolfe said. That included strengthening the school’s hallways and walls.

Smallwood said the pace of the project pushed up the cost for the additional seismic work. The district’s goal is to complete most of the interior work on the building this summer and next summer to minimize disruptions to any in-person classes.

Keeping to that schedule while completing more extensive seismic renovations means paying crews lots of overtime, with work six days a week, Smallwood said.

Two smaller factors have also added to the cost. About $2 million more will be needed for permitting requirements, including widening Howard Street for about three blocks on the north side of the school, Smallwood said.

A city review found that the school’s fire alarm system needed to be replaced rather than upgraded, also adding to the cost.

Another $2 million was needed to cover rising construction costs, Smallwood and Wolfe said.

Wolfe said one factor contributing to that increase is a new state business activity tax. Contractors pay those additional costs and pass it along in bids.

Design teams working on plans for West and Sprague high schools will be held “very tightly” to the original budget, Smallwood said. The two schools are the newest and least overcrowded in the district. Construction on them is scheduled to begin next spring.

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.