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STEPHEN HEMELT — Nederland school board members, stakeholders looking for campus construction

It garnered some laughs, but Nicholas Phillips wasn’t joking when he said: “I agree its time. The approved signs are starting to rot.”

The Nederland Independent School District school board member delivered the line toward the end of an hour-long discussion last week with building and design vendors responsible for campus construction across the district.

The talk focused on new construction and upgrades, recently funded by taxpayer-vote, at Helena Park Elementary, Highland Park Elementary, Hillcrest Elementary and Langham Elementary.

Phillips was referring to the large and omnipresent “Construction – Coming Soon” signs that are out in front of all Nederland campuses, largely trumpeting work that has yet to begin.

Approved in the Spring of 2019, the signs herald more than $150 million in building and technology improvements that will eventually touch every aspect of the Nederland Independent School District.

And to be fair, work has begun, evidenced by demolition completed before this school year at Langham Elementary and new field installation at Bulldog Stadium.

However, Phillips and some of his fellow board members were referring to a lack of visible progress the public can see following their votes more than a year ago.

In fact, the more crucial point was made just before Phillips’ statement, when the district’s contractor, H.B. Neild & Sons, emphatically stated the time for planning is dwindling if all stakeholders want to meet their completion benchmarks in a few years.

H.B. Neild Vice President Thomas Neild said there is no more wiggle room.

“We have to hit these dates,” he said. “I don’t want that to be lost on anyone. This has to happen. That is what y’all pay us to do: Get your buildings in the ground. If it seems like I am speaking a little bit brash or harsh, it’s because I am. There is no more room for this back-and-forth stuff. If y’all want the building, we have got to get going.”

What has to happen is design finality, and unfortunately, that has been causing recent hiccups. NISD leaders contend the district’s architect, IBI, led numerous stakeholder meetings seeking input into what each new school would look like, going so far as to produce mockups with plenty of amenities believed to fit within the budget.

However, when IBI and H.B. Neild began working together, they quickly discovered designs concepts from 2019 and early 2020 would exceed budget restraints.

That has led to recent presentations by IBI to school board members that reduce the frills of previous designs but still meet each upgrade approved by voters and drastically improve the education footprint across Nederland.

Administrators, school board members and contractors are expected to reconvene for a special-called meeting in January, possibly during the first full week of the new year, to lock down designs for the new elementary schools and set bid, construction and completion deadlines.

One unique wrinkle to Nederland stakeholders is ongoing school construction plans in neighboring school districts from Port Neches-Groves to Lumberton to Hardin-Jefferson.

There are only so many contractors in the area. If the NISD releases all their projects at one time, the prices could come back too high due to a lack of competition.

This could lead to two elementary schools beginning work before the other two, thus creating two timelines.

Thankfully, all of these questions should get answers next month, as school board members approve final plans and chart the course for Nederland’s education future.

And that will be a development that can’t be missed.

Stephen Hemelt is president of Port Arthur Newsmedia. He can be reached at stephen.hemelt@panews.com and 409-721-2445.