Are School Architects’ Fees in Stratosphere?

By Gary Meyer, Richard Hoegh and Patric Hedlund

Those who are penciling the numbers on costs for El Tejon Unified School District’s building project are asking questions this week:

What is a standard price for architectural and management services for building school facilities? Is it possible that ETUSD has already paid twice the normal fees before any construction has begun? Why?

ETUSD trustees and the Citizens School Bond Oversight Committee must answer these questions in their March 10 meetings. Meanwhile, Acting Superintendent Danny Whetton is on his way to speak with the district’s architect to learn more about the services they have already provided.

In February, trustees tabled a proposal to accelerate signing new contracts for their architect and a construction management firm, asking attorneys to review the work for which the district has already paid.

The Mountain Enterprise has been speaking with sources throughout California familiar with public school construction to learn what is usual. Architects typically charge a percentage of actual construction costs.

Despite variables that make it difficult to set a hard figure for a standard architect’s percentage, a range between 8-10 percent of construction costs is a maximum rate that seems typical on school projects up to $6 million, descending to as low as 5-6 percent on larger projects.

One of the higher estimates we found came from the California Office of Public School Construction (OPSC). “Tell us how our community can know if the school district is being overcharged for architect fees,” we asked.

Rebecca Kirk of OPSC referred us to a chart that was officially discontinued in 1998, but is still used as the guideline today for both new construction and modernization projects.

A Kern County executive familiar with construction contracts said, “I’d say 8 percent of construction costs is what architects should get.” A local architect said, “Anything over 10 percent is excessive.”

What we’ve spent so far

ETUSD has signed two contacts with architects Phillips Metsch Sweeney and Moore (PMSM). The firm is now negotiating a third contract.

The first, signed November 14, 2007, was for $191,000 for preliminary design and a master plan for the district. The second, dated January 29, 2009 was for $927,100 to design classrooms for Frazier Park and El Tejon Schools and to secure approvals. Those contracts total $1,118,100 in fees paid—so far.

Then, in January 2010, ETUSD trustees took steps to hire CM Construction Services LLC of Visalia for an additional $300,000 to serve as an on-site facilitator coordinating with the general contractor—a task often fulfilled in the past by the architect. PMSM was on the hiring committee for the management company.

Trustees were told that CM would confirm, for instance, that the new facilities comply with all laws, such as federal Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility guidelines. Trustees asked why the architect shouldn’t be able to comply with the law in their original designs.

No figure has been released yet for PMSM’s proposed additional fees for the third contract to share construction management duties.

So, without including the architect’s new fees—adding only the management firm—the minimum projected architect/ management expense for the project is already $1,418,100.

What percentage is that of the projected construction budget?

The state’s unstable budget is a complicating factor. The district has $7.12 million in school bond funds and they have completed steps that in normal times would secure about 30 percent more in state matching funds, bringing the total construction budget to about $9.26 million. But these are not normal times.

“It is just whether the state has the money to give out…and where do we fall on their waiting list?” Whetton said Tuesday, March 2. Mark Fulmer, assistant superintendent of Kern County schools for financial services, said he believes there are about 900 schools already standing in line. So there is still uncertainty about the amount of building ETUSD will be able to do.

If the construction phase budget is reduced from its July 2009 estimate of $9,673,490—let’s say to as low as $9 million—the architect and manager’s fixed contracts would total 15.8 percent of projected construction costs—and 20 percent of the bond approved in November 2005.

This is nearly double the acceptable range we were able to find for architect fees. These percentages will be increased when PMSM’s construction management fees are added.

Whetton said he will be meeting with PMSM on Thursday, March 4 to review the previous contracts and the services received by the district.

The question of whether to hire CM Construction for an additional $300,000, along with a third contract for PMSM, will be up for a vote at the next ETUSD board meeting, on March 10, at 7 p.m. in the Frazier Mountain High School library. The public is invited to attend.

This is part of the March 05, 2010 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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