By Christopher Smith
Whitfield County Board of Education members have a chance to help the local economy Monday night when they are expected to decide who will build Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) labs in county schools later this year.
That’s the main reason members of the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy Board of Directors are asking school board members to give the job to Cope Brothers Construction Co., a Dalton-based firm.
“Our mission is to say that this is our best judgment for what we think we can do with our money,” Tim Fleming, academy principal and CEO, said. “Ultimately, we don’t make the determination on what company gets the project. That will be decided by the board of education. We’re only giving a recommendation.”
Cope Brothers is one of five companies bidding on the project, according to James W. Buckley and Associates, the architectural firm that designed the STEM labs and oversaw the bid process. The other companies are Felker Construction Co., Pinson’s Construction, J&J Contractors and R.K. Redding Construction.
“Our recommendation has to go into an equation of what’s cost effective and what’s locally owned,” said academy board Chairman Tim Campbell. “The only thing that meets both of those marks is Cope (Brothers).”
Felker Construction is also based in Dalton, but only submitted a bid for the high schools, while the other four companies submitted bids for both high school and middle school STEM lab projects.
Cope Brothers, which has renovated several downtown buildings including the Dalton Freight Depot, submitted a bid of $1.83 million. Chattanooga-based J&J Contractors was the lowest bid at $1.82 million, while Bremen-based R.K. Redding was the highest bid at $2.2 million, which exceeds the academy’s budget of $2 million. The project is being funded by a $2.6 million state grant.
“Some of that money went to our architects at Buckley, but we do have $2.2 million budgeted for this project,” Fleming said. “But that includes $200,000 that our architects are recommending we keep aside for any surprises we might run into during construction. Sometimes you pull down a wall and find something you didn’t expect and that money would cover those unexpected expenses.”
Each bid was split into estimates for the middle school labs and the high school labs, said Fleming, which means board of education members could use two contractors. Choosing Rome-based Pinson’s Construction to do the middle schools at a bid of $921,170 and Cope Brothers to do the high schools at a bid of $875,000 would be the cheapest two-company contract, totaling $1.79 million.
“We still think it’d be best to just get one company to do all the schools,” academy board member Brian Cooksey said. “There’s pros and cons to both sides — you’d get twice the workforce with two companies, but you also have to have twice the meetings and paperwork and two accountable parties.”
Splitting the project won’t “save that much money anyways,” Campbell added.
If there is room in the $2 million budget after the STEM labs are completed — or if the $200,000 “contingency fund” isn’t used — Fleming says work will be done on “alternative” projects.
According to the bid form provided by the architect company, the secondary projects include adding exterior stairs to access the STEM labs from outside, epoxy flooring for the middle schools, renovations to an existing agriculture lab at Southeast Whitfield High School, renovations to the Northwest Whitfield High School broadcast room and renovations to the Northwest Whitfield drafting (engineering) lab.
“If we have the money, we will try and get as many alternative projects done as we can,” Cooksey said. “The engineering lab at Northwest is in a sad condition, not that we have to have perfect labs. However, we need to update so students can be prepared for the modern career.”
One modern career Cooksey says STEM labs will teach is mechatronics — an overlapping of mechanical, electrical, computer, software and control engineering.
“We have a need for this program locally for businesses (like Mohawk, Shaw and Georgia Power), and we are working with the state Department of Education to set up our curriculum,” Cooksey said. “They (state officials) will do some tweaking to it and finalize it, but this should happen in the next month or so. Then we will get public input from citizens and businesses in our area and from around the state. We are anticipating this curriculum to be approved by next fall.”
If the curriculum is approved, it will introduce students to mechanical and electrical concepts, robotics, basic circuit analysis, automation and hydraulics and pneumatic systems, Cooksey said.
“We will work closely with (Northwest Georgia Technical College),” he added, “to make sure students can get some kind of post-secondary credit for our classes. At the very least, we can make sure students get some kind of certificate that will stand out to employers.”
STEM labs will be built in the following schools:
Southeast Whitfield High School
Northwest Whitfield High School
New Hope Middle School
North Whitfield Middle School
Valley Point Middle School
Westside Middle School