After more than two years of planning and design, the Bethlehem Area School District committed to spending $95.5 million on updating and expanding its two high schools, exceeding the original project estimates by almost $15 million.
The Bethlehem Area School Board on Monday awarded contracts totaling $81.8 million to general construction, electrical, plumbing and mechanical contractors for work at Liberty and Freedom high schools.
With architectural fees, financing and other expenses, the project costs total $65.1 million for Liberty and $30.4 million for Freedom. Original estimates were $60.2 million for Liberty and $20.7 million for Freedom.
Liberty's general construction contract generated only two bidders. A $7.7 million gap between the bids alarmed the losing bidder, Skepton Construction of Pennsburg, enough to call a school board member at home.
School Director Loretta Leeson said Frank Skepton, whose company had the winning bid for the Freedom project, questioned the legitimacy of the winning bid for Liberty's general construction contract because the other company's prices were so much lower.
Boro Construction offered a $35 million bid including the accepted alternates for Liberty's renovation and expansion. Skepton's total bid for Liberty was more than 20 percent higher.
A woman answering the phone at Skepton Construction on Tuesday said the owner wasn't available.
Leeson said she was also contacted by a roofer about the bidding process.
"I'm somewhat troubled that a contractor contacted a board member directly," said Superintendent Joseph Lewis. "Frankly, Boro substantiated that they met every requirement of the bid process. I put trust in our engineering firm that the bidding is correct and that everything is sound."
Leeson said she disagreed that the phone calls were inappropriate.
"We're the ones awarding this contract," she said. "For people in our community to contact us, that is one of the reasons we are on this board."
The original estimates for both projects were adjusted several million dollars higher over the past year to account for inflation, rising prices for steel and cement, and unexpected sinkholes, said Arif Fazil of D'Huy Engineering, the district's engineer.
The district plans to renovate 364,475 square feet at Liberty and add 118,150 square feet. Most of the new space will be a student activity center.
The Freedom project involves renovating 262,561 square feet and adding 113,750 square feet.
Freedom's addition, which will include a gym that can hold 2,500 people, a bigger cafeteria and 16 classrooms, also will bump out Freedom's front door so it is flush with the rest of the building.
The district took out a $55 million bond issue this year and committed to borrowing another $55 million in 2007 for the high school renovations. Whatever is left over will go toward building a new Broughal Middle School.
For the Freedom project, contracts were awarded to: Skepton Construction, $18.4 million for general construction; Worth & Co. of Pipersville, $3.9 million for heating, ventilation and air conditioning; Albarell Electric of Bethlehem, $2.8 million for electrical work; Jay R. Reynolds of Willow Street, $1.4 million for plumbing.
Contracts for Liberty were awarded to: Boro Construction of King of Prussia, Montgomery County, $35 million for general construction; Dual Temp Co. of Allentown, $10.6 million for HVAC and $4 million for plumbing; and Albarell Electric, $5.9 million for electrical.
Contracts for asbestos removal were awarded to Sargent Enterprises of Jim Thorpe for Liberty, for $377,000; and Power Component Systems of Harrisburg for Freedom, for $33,000.
Construction is scheduled to begin in summer. The two projects will run simultaneously.