School tardiness, contractor style

August 30, 1993

With the persistent increase in school-age population in Harford County -- up nearly 10,000 children over the past decade -- the system has had to play catch up in building new schools. Despite the reliance on portable classrooms, the county has been opening at least one new school every year to keep up with demand.

You would think that the administration would have learned by now how to stage construction, and monitor it, so that buildings are ready in time for the start of school. And that they would put some teeth into enforcement clauses to prod a dilatory builder to finish the job on time.

But as more than 800 students at Fallston Middle School learned last week, their new building wouldn't be ready in time for use today and their vacation has been extended for at least two weeks. So much for the pre-Labor Day start.

The problem isn't the incomplete kitchen, gym, parking lot and ++ some ancillary facilities; the school board acknowledged those delays earlier this month and said they would be finished after students returned.

It's the more serious issue of fire safety code violations involving automatic fire sprinklers, smoke doors, fire alarms, emergency lighting, blocked exits and missing fireproofing material.

Belated attention to those important items was caused by earlier delays. Triangle Construction Co. was to complete the $14 million project by July 15. Bad weather, a problem with the original bids, and a squabble over a tiny wetlands put the project behind schedule. School officials blame the contractor's refusal to subcontract masonry work, and to do it in-house, for much of the protraction.

Earlier this year, Harford canceled the planned fall opening of Church Creek Elementary School at Riverside because of serious construction holdups. That school won't open until 1994.

These problems should signal to Harford school administrators and the school board that it is time to pay closer attention to building projects and to establish more realistic construction schedules. Accelerated county funding is also needed to provide for longer construction periods.

Penalties for noncompliance should be strengthened and enforced. The $1,500-a-day penalty is not a serious threat; builders usually find a legal excuse to avoid any sanctions. The school system is moving to disqualify bidders for poor performance on previous projects. But it must also do better in cutting down on the tardiness of contractors.

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