Stella Maris School Renovations May Come in Over Budget

The former Stella Maris Regional School is in the process of being renovated and upgraded by the Sag Harbor School District. Christine Sampson photos
The former Stella Maris Regional School is in the process of being renovated and upgraded by the Sag Harbor School District. Christine Sampson photos

By Christine Sampson

The final iteration of the “Stella Maris project” — the moniker Sag Harbor School District administrators are giving the former Catholic school building, since it is without an official public school name — may come in over budget, according to a report delivered to the school board on May 31 by the architects handling the project.

By exactly how much money it may fall short remains unclear.

“As we see it now, the entire project, including the gym, is above the budget that is set aside for the project,” Ed Bernhauer, the project architect with BCK-IBI Group, initially told the school board during its special meeting last week.

However, later in the meeting, both Mr. Bernhauer and Sag Harbor superintendent Katy Graves said they feel the district can ready the Stella Maris building for the basic programming uses within the $6.3 million the district has available for renovations via the successful May 2016 community vote that provided the funding for the project.

Those uses include relocating the district’s current half-day prekindergarten program to the new facility, setting up a center for early intervention special education services, leasing classroom space to a tuition-based day care program, relocating certain administrative offices there and offering up space for large-group instruction, community-based programs and special events.

The potential increase, which was raised publicly for the first time on Wednesday, stems partially from the added expense of a new sprinkler system in the lower level of the school building, and the need to lay down new flooring in the gymnasium. Some school board members said during recent meetings they were unaware a new gym floor would be needed.

Before these additions to the project, its total cost would be $6,337,822, according to Wednesday night’s presentation. That is based on cost estimates and a building condition survey completed by another architectural firm. Mr. Bernhauer said this estimate would likely change after his own team recalculates the total cost of the Stella Maris project.

Although the school board was provided with a copy of the previous cost estimates within BCK’s report on Wednesday, the version of the report provided to The Express on June 1 and posted to the district website Friday did not contain those cost estimates.

“We know from our experience with the bond project for the fields that bids can come in higher than original cost estimates and that prices can escalate over time,” school board president Diana Kolhoff said by email Tuesday. “So the board has been hoping for the best but feeling a bit of trepidation with this project based on our recent experiences. This is why we did not include the original cost estimates in the recent report made available online. Those numbers were generated some time ago by a different firm. We want to give our architects a chance to run their own numbers, as those numbers will be far more accurate.”

“I think when BCK does their work, we’ll find out we’re really close,” Ms. Graves said during the May 31 meeting. She said she believes the district will be able to fund the “big rocks” that were promised to the community in the Stella Maris project. The community had authorized $3.3 million to buy the building from St. Andrew Catholic Church, about $6.3 million for renovations and $595,678 to ready the space for programming.

Another revelation Wednesday was the presence of asbestos in various places. While some school board members said they were surprised to learn this and thought prior testing in the building had found no asbestos, both Ms. Graves and Mr. Bernhauer said it was anticipated.

“The materials the building was constructed with in 1964 are not allowed to be in the space now because of current codes,” Mr. Bernhauer said. “That’s not a surprise. We didn’t find anything that was out of place or a toxin that was a surprise to us. It was all normal materials that were used at the time.”

Ms. Graves added, “When we did the current building project we are finishing up, we discovered the same thing,” referring to renovations at Sag Harbor Elementary School and Pierson Middle High School.

Also revealed Wednesday was news that Stella Maris’s lower-level rooms cannot be used as classrooms for daily, early childhood instruction. Mr. Bernhauer said New York State Education Department building code prohibits that use, due to the lack of direct egress to the outside in case of fire, among other clauses. That means the main-level classrooms must suffice for both the prekindergarten and day care programs, which the architect said is plenty of space for both present needs and future growth. The lower level spaces can still be used for other activities, such as meetings, large-group instruction, lectures and other events.

The main level, as BCK envisions it, would consist of six classrooms: two for the day care; two for the prekindergarten; an early intervention center and a quiet room; and a collaborative learning space where the different age groups can interact or work on larger creative projects in a “maker space” kind of setting that Mr. Bernhauer said is very popular in schools these days.

The good news Wednesday was that the exterior of the building and the structural components are in very good condition, the architect said.

“The interior walls are all non-load-bearing,” he said. “They are all just partitions, so we can really reconfigure these spaces to what we need it to be.”

He also said the windows, which can be extremely expensive to replace, are in good condition. He said he will recommend keeping them, whereas the previous architects had said they would need to be replaced.

The presentation Wednesday followed several weeks of meetings with various teachers and administrators in the district as well as two interested day care providers, the Rainbow Preschool and SCOPE. The architects were to have met on June 1 with the school district’s Educational Facilities Planning Committee.

Mr. Bernhauer and a colleague, Bill Sands, the project manager with BCK-IBI Group, will return to the school board on June 19 for another presentation. They said Wednesday they are still on track to send plans up to the NYSED for approval in August. The district hopes to open the doors to the new facility in the fall of 2018.

The school board also briefly discussed a new name for the former Stella Maris Regional School, which closed in 2011 amid declining enrollment and financial woes.

Board president Diana Kolhoff said she liked the idea of keeping “Stella Maris,” which translates to “star of the sea,” to honor both the school’s history and the maritime history of Sag Harbor. Board member Stephanie Bitis also said she liked the sound of “Stella Maris Public School.”

Ms. Graves, however, said, “I think folks are concerned that it has religious ties. If you Google ‘Stella Maris,’ you’ll find a lot of Italian restaurants — not a lot of religious connotations.”

Board vice president Tommy John Schiavoni suggested naming the new school after Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, the well-known philanthropist who donated the money to build Pierson Middle-High School, among other Sag Harbor institutions. Board member Chris Tice suggested soliciting ideas from the public or surveying residents’ opinions on the topic.