After more than a decade of waiting, Clarke County’s new high school is officially scheduled for dedication on April 28th at 11:00 am. Although the public will and the public funds that were necessary to make the new school a reality had existed for many years, it was not until Robina Bouffault took the helm of the Clarke County School Board in 2008 that the $23.3M construction project finally began moving forward. Future students who pass through the new school on their journey to adulthood have many people to be grateful for in the state-of-the-art learning campus, most notably Clarke County taxpayers. Students will also owe a great deal of gratitude to the Clarke County School Board and the Clarke County Board of Supervisors for making the dream a reality.
Over the last four years, the every-other-Monday school construction committee meetings were rarely attended by the public. Few people witnessed the proceedings and the debates weren’t always pleasant. For the record, Ms. Bouffault led the project from start to finish and kept it moving when progress could have easily been mired by political mud-slinging. She worked tirelessly to design a request-for-proposal that resulted in a nearly $7M budget windfall below the expected bids amount for the new building. Bouffault was the primary architect of the construction contract for the project. Bouffault’s leadership successfully navigated negotiations with the Town of Berryville, Virginia Department of Transportation, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and the County of Clarke to name only a few. As authorized owner’s representative, Bouffault spent as much, if not more, time on the school construction site as she did in School Board meetings.
The result of Bouffault’s leadership is a spacious and well equipped high school and more than $600K of unspent building funds still in the bank.
As the terrazzo floors are buffed one last time and a final coat of floor wax dries in the gymnasium in preparation Clarke County’s High School Class of 2013, citizens and students alike owe a tip their hat to Ms. Bouffault as the one person who delivered the political fortitude and professional skills necessary to get the new school completed on-time and under budget.
Robina Rich Bouffault in her own words:
CDN: With the new high school now nearly complete, have you been able to step back and absorb the accomplishment? What are your impressions?
Bouffault: My impressions are very positive ones – the school is not only esthetically pleasing, it is built with an enormous amount of natural lighting, which is proven to stimulate learning ability. I am extremely pleased that we were finally able to make this state-of-the art new high school happen, after so many frustrating years – you will recall that a School Board construction committee had voted to build a new high school in 2001, so more than ten years have elapsed to make that wish a reality.
CDN: Are there any lessons that the County or the school division should take away in regards to future large capital projects?
Bouffault: I believe that it is important to realize that for any capital project to be a success, there needs to be not only oversight from the Owner, but experienced oversight. Whether it’s a construction project, or an IT development project, having a hands-on person keeping an eye on both the task at hand and on the budget (in private industry, you never forget the budget…) can make the difference between a successful or a failed project.
It is also vital to have a well-written, iron-clad contract that contractors will respect and adhere to, and which will avoid any subsequent misunderstandings or unnecessary cost overruns. For the new high school, we were very fortunate in having the Reed-Smith attorney Mr. Joseph Luchini, a construction contract specialist, who wrote a very clear and detailed contract for us, that I believe was a great help in making the working relationship between all of the parties – architects, project managers and general contractor – a very smooth one.
CDN: Given the frequent disagreements between members that characterized your school board it seems like the new school project could have easily stalled or never gotten started to begin with. What made the difference in getting the school built?
Bouffault: I believe that our School Board board was, right from the start, very united in wanting to make our new high school happen. The few (always highlighted by the media) disagreements that we had were how best to do it, rather than IF to do it. In the end, the majority of the board recognized the need for an experienced Authorized Owner’s Representative to spearhead the project.
CDN: You led the process during the design process, bidding and construction of the new high school. Where did you acquire the business and construction experience that allowed you to accomplish Clarke County’s largest construction project to date?
Bouffault: This was not the first time that I had been involved with construction projects. In my prior career, which dealt mainly with international cement commodities trading, we also built a number of cement import terminals in the United States, Europe and Asia, for which I was responsible, in addition to cement purchases in various parts of the world. Whether it’s building a cement terminal or a high school, the construction process does not change: you need a top-notch architect, a highly qualified project manager and a well-credentialed general contractor if the project is to be done properly.
CDN: As the school board member designated as “authorized owner’s representative” you had the ultimate responsibility for getting the school built on time and on budget. What grade would you give yourself for the job and why?
Bouffault: I do believe I earned an “A” on that. It was built on time and under budget, and the building is a beautiful one. However, it is very important to point out that I did not do this alone. Our architects Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates, our project managers Gannett-Fleming and our general contractors Howard Shockey and Sons all did a fantastic job and proved that they are all consummate professionals. It was a great pleasure to be able to work with such a dynamic and positive group of people – and my special thanks go to Shockey’s construction Superintendent, Mr. Gordon Williams, whose extensive experience smoothed out the many hiccups that occur in any construction project. As all good professionals, he made it look easy!
CDN: Business, and especially construction, is still dominated by male professionals. Were there challenges that you faced during the new high school project that may not have been there for a man in the same position?
Bouffault: Yes, the construction industry continues to be dominated by men. However, I have always felt that being a woman in such a male atmosphere can be an advantage, rather than a disadvantage. The men will refrain from using excessive language in front of a woman, and will make efforts to be chivalrous. Any woman knows how to take advantage of that!
CDN: The Salvation Army owns a nearby parcel that is designated as “school use” on the sub-division plat recently approved by the Clarke County Planning Commission. How do you interpret the “school use” identified on the Salvation Army plat and “why”?
Bouffault: It is a well-known fact that the Salvation Army had a contract with the prior School Board to donate 71 acres (originally 200 acres) for the construction of a new high school. Unfortunately, in spite of the prior School Board having fulfilled all of the contract requirements, at the time, the Salvation Army failed to donate the land. I am hopeful that having received the approval of the sub-division plat, they will now proceed to the actual sub-division of the property, and finally donate the 71 acres indicated on their plat to the Clarke County School Board. Better late than never…
CDN: What do you like most about the new facility?
Bouffault: Everything – it’s location, looking out over the Town, it’s natural lighting throughout the building, the large auditorium and competition gym, the large and luminous library, the classroom wing with the extra-large and beautifully equipped science labs, and the many specialized classrooms for the Arts, Music, Band, Technology and Agricultural classes – not forgetting of course the greenhouse.
CDN: How will the new facility improve student learning over the existing building?
Bouffault: I believe that the extra space (with the core built for 1,000 students and fewer than 700 currently foreseen to be in it the first year) and the very attractive surroundings will incentivize the students and the teachers. The atmosphere will be more like that of a college than that of a high school.
CDN: Are there any changes to the design process or the actual structure that you would change if you had it to do over?
Bouffault: The only thing that might need to be looked at depending upon actual traffic pattern usage, is the location of the main entrance to the school, currently located at the end of existing Mosby. I have always believed that the main entrance needs to be off of Main Street, which is a primary road, instead of Mosby, which is a residential secondary road. The Main Street entrance is currently a bus entrance only. However, time will give us the real answer to that.
CDN: You’ve recently been appointed to the Clarke County Planning Commission and are on the sub-committee looking at economic development possibilities at Double Tollgate. What role will you play in the Double Tollgate review and what is your vision for Double Tollgate?
Bouffault: I am on a sub-committee currently studying Double-Tollgate at the request of the Board of Supervisors. Double-Tollgate is well located for commercial development, and the committee has started studying a number of options, including water and sewer availability, the best types of businesses that could successfully fit the area and other items to enhance economic development at that location. The study is on-going and I believe it will take some time yet before the sub-committee can make any definite recommendations on how best to proceed.
CDN: Anything that you’d like to add?
Bouffault: Clarke County is a beautiful and unique place to live, with its residents committed to maintaining its rural character while appropriately developing its economic base. I am pleased to be able to help with that endeavor.