WASHINGTON — The Region 12 School Board decided this week to allow its Building Committee to oversee $32.8 million in spending on the district’s new science labs and Agriscience-STEM academy, over the objection of some board members who contended the move was premature.

Committee Chair Greg Cava argued the move was anything but premature, and is a necessary and common procedure in building projects.

“Under normal circumstances you would have granted this authority 20 months ago,” Cava said.

School board members voted 9 to 2 Monday night to approve the move, allowing the six-member panel to spend up to $29.9 million on Ag-STEM and $2.9 million on renovations to the high school’s science labs. Previously any expenditures had to go the 12-member elected board.

Critics of the change argued that the building panel had spent less than half of the $1.89 million the board had already authorized for the project, so there is no immediate need for further authorization. They also questioned whether the state is still good for the $23 million it promised for the project, and requested the move be made after construction bids are returned and the full cost is known.

“You’re gonna be writing checks,” board member Pete Tagley said. “Where’s the $32 million in the bank?”

Board Chair Anthony Amato said the district must count on the good faith of the state, and there are protections in place if construction bills run over budget.

First, the construction manager, O&G Industries, must come to the School Board for any amounts above the $32.8 million. Second, the contract with O&G stipulates that it is “at risk,” meaning if subcontractors go over budget the company takes the hit, not the district.

Vice Chair Alan Brown questioned the rush to make the authorization, although he eventually voted in favor of it.

Cava, in a heated exchange with Brown, replied that the district’s contract with O&G did not allow for things like building permits, which need to get done. For example, Cava said, he would have to come back to the full board with bills for less than $100.

He warned against putting the volunteer committee on a “starvation diet.”

“This is not the way you build a project,” Cava said. “You either trust the Building Committee, or you don’t. ... I don’t want to come back here every week.”

The district plans to begin building the academy this summer and open it in the fall of 2019. All work on Ag-STEM and the science labs is expected to be complete by December 2019.

The academy, to be housed in an expanded Shepaug Valley School, will focus on the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — and on agriculture-related fields such as as plant sciences where job growth is expected to be strong. Without the academy to lure students from outside the region, the district was projected to shed students for years to come, putting its schools in jeopardy of eventual closure, school board members have said.

blytton@hearstmediact.com; 203-731-3411; @bglytton