Despite pandemic, school construction continues at Santa Rita



Liberty Hill ISD officials have dedicated a good portion of their time to continuing to serve and educate students through school closures this spring, but one eye remains on the critical tasks required to make sure they can do the same when August and a new school year arrives.

Near the top of that list is the completion of Santa Rita Elementary, scheduled to open in August.

“Construction is staying on schedule as much as possible,” Superintendent Steve Snell said. “The construction companies will be impacted by the slow down a little bit, but right now the plan is to keep on schedule with that.”

According to project engineer Casey Sledge, workers are currently doing even better than that.

“Construction has continued throughout as part of the essential items list,” he said. “The site has changed a good amount. Santa Rita Elementary is probably a little bit ahead of schedule. It’s been pretty impressive.”

Despite extended safety measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one benefit has resulted from the current situation.

“One of the reasons this hasn’t slowed them down is they are able to get more resources to the site because many of the subcontractors have other projects that have stopped, especially private sector jobs,” Sledge said.

Delays in delivery of materials was a concern as March wore on, but early planning and the current status of the Santa Rita project helped avoid a huge impact.

“They have had a couple of material delay issues coming from out of state,” Sledge said. “In our case at Santa Rita Elementary most of the materials were on site or in local storage so we were fortunate in that regard. It could have been much worse. Even the delayed items will make it before opening. We were over 90 percent materials on site when this started, which is a big deal and we just caught a break there.”

The substantial completion date on the calendar for Bartlett Cocke is July 1 and that date has not changed and change is not anticipated at this time.

“It looks like they are going to make that and if so, that means the district will have the ability to start moving in furniture and things like that throughout the month of July and into August,” Sledge said.

The Santa Rita project, which has a guaranteed maximum construction price of $27.2 million not counting soft costs – items like design and furniture – began with a contingency fund of $625,750 that is now sitting at $650,348.

“At this point we’ve spent none of that money on the net side,” Sledge said. “We’ve actually saved money on it. We’ve credited to that money so there is more available. That’s taxpayer money that just stays with the district if it’s not used. Every bit of that can go to the next project if needed.”

The new campus is taking shape and beginning to show its identity as the facade goes up and interior finishes are being worked on.

“It is all dried in now and that’s huge,” Sledge said. “Finishes are going in the building like wall and floor tile, some rooms are being painted and some light fixtures are gong in. You an definitely see what it’s turning into now.”

Dealing with COVID-19
The decision was made by County officials to list construction projects under essential businesses, allowing projects like Santa Rita Elementary, and Liberty Hill’s newly started middle school project to continue.

County Judge Bill Gravell explained the importance of allowing construction work to continue throughout the county due to its impact on the economy and the lower risk to workers.

“The OSHA guidelines are as stringent or more stringent than the guidelines we have for social distancing and cleaning and washing their hands,” he said. “If we were to shut down construction in Williamson County it would be roughly 40 percent of our economy. I am not more concerned about our economy than I am about life, but that is one trade that I think is essential and I believe they can have the appropriate social distancing and we can be successful.”

That news has allowed LHISD projects to stay on track, but some changes can be seen on work sites.

“It’s been interesting industry-wide for sure,” Sledge said. “Our contractor, Bartlett Cocke, has done a really nice job taking a leadership role to help protect all of the staff and subcontractors and deliveries on site.”

Some alterations to work flow and project management have been made to accommodate social distancing guidelines.

“They’ve worked hard on working distant, which you can imagine is tricky sometimes,” Sledge said. “Even walking the site is different. We’re much more mindful of how we do it. As I’ve watched everybody work I’ve been very impressed with the individual responsibility. You can see everybody working, and there’s 100 or more people working, but they have done a really good job of staging out and phasing through their work differently. The net result of all of these actions is what we’re seeing is the workers are recognizing that they are well protected.”

A second project
Work has begun on the new middle school, to be built in Santa Rita as well, on 32 acres situated directly east of the intersection of Santa Rita Boulevard and Ronald Reagan, after the land purchase was finalized in February.

The final price for the land was $2,138,063.25, but the school district will save some money by not having to incur the additional costs for utility or road infrastructure to accommodate the campus.

“A road needs to be built and completed by a certain date,” Snell said. “Water, sewer and electricity needs to be brought in by a certain date. That’s very expensive and something school districts really can’t afford to do, or you have to plan well in advance for it. It’s a great partnership with the Santa Rita neighborhood to build the road and put in the utilities.”

The campus is set to have a student capacity of 900 and has a budget of $50.5 million. It is planned to open in 2021.

“They have begun moving dirt out there in a very significant way and what you’d see out there right now is a lot of heavy equipment working quickly,” Sledge said. “They are able to order materials and haven’t seen any negativity on that so far. They ordered building steel for example, and it seems like that is going to be delivered per normal.”

The two-building campus will be about 150,000 square feet, compared to the 105,000 square feet in the new Santa Rita Elementary.

The east side of the main building of the new middle school is where two gyms, coaching and locker room facilities will be located. The location will allow access to the gyms after hours while easily closing off the remainder of the campus. It also allows controlled access to locker room and coaching offices.

The remainder of the main building is for administrative offices, kitchen and lunch room, as well as theater, band, art and career and technology classrooms.

All other classrooms will be located in the two-story second building on the west end of the property. The library is at the center of the academic building.

The classroom building is designed to have sixth-grade students primarily separated from seventh and eighth graders in one side of the second floor.

For the higher grades, humanities is located on the first floor with science classes on the second with lab space, all wrapped around the library space.

While the campus is designed for 900 students, many of the core spaces – such as the library and cafeteria – are sized larger so additions can be made to the campus without having to expand those spaces.