Mistakes and delays add millions to cost of school building projects Officials in Arundel say problems beyond their control

September 18, 1995|By Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel | Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

$TC Millions of tax dollars are wasted on school construction in Anne Arundel County as a result of planning, design and construction mistakes and delays.

A dozen projects have gone awry recently, costing county taxpayers $7.2 million. That includes this year's construction and work the superintendent is recommending for next year.

"They certainly have had their fair share of trouble," said County Council Chairman Diane R. Evans.

From the air conditioning system that wouldn't fit in Solley Elementary to the media centers that cost $120,000 instead of $50,000, it seems as though the school system has had one embarrassment after another.

These problems come at a time when the county's budget is strained and the tax cap limits its ability to increase revenues. But a growing population means more schools, and aging schools need to be refurbished.

Consider the tangled process of putting a new middle school at Fort Meade.

School officials started talking about the project five years ago. They are still talking. The final draft of a belated environmental assessment is being reviewed by the base and needs Pentagon approval before the school system can lease the site. Only then can school officials look at a construction date.

The delays have raised the projected cost from $21 million to about $23 million in a year, said Rodell Phaire, director of planning and construction. The increase is due to inflation, increased cost of materials, and the move to equip all new and renovated schools with computer labs, he said.

Then there is the size issue: State and county administrators agreed the school should be built for 800 students. The county usually builds for 10 percent more students to allow for expansion, bringing the number closer to 900. School planners, however, designed a school for 1,258 students.

Mr. Phaire defended designing the school for many more students. The lower figure reflects how the classrooms will be used, the higher figure represents state-rated capacity based on the number of classrooms, he said.

Some of the same problems afflict the proposed replacement for Meade Heights Elementary School, also on the military base. The school system would have had all the money it needed to build that one according to original projections.

But the site, again not yet procured, is on its second

environmental assessment. The wait has added $1.2 million this year to the price tag. The school system rejected two other sites, even though each was less than a mile away.

The state's contribution to a school construction project is fixed, regardless of whether a project costs less than expected or twice as much, said Joan Cadden a former school board member and current state delegate from Brooklyn Park. This means Anne Arundel taxpayers must meet the full cost of overruns, she said.

For Solley Elementary School, several hundred thousand dollars were lost because of flawed drawings. The problems were discovered only after construction began and officials realized the ventilation system wouldn't fit. The school system paid a new architect $429,000 to fix the design. The contractor got an extra $200,000 to finish the work so the school could open on time. The school system is trying to recoup the money.

The problem had a ripple effect. Park and South Shore elementaries were based on the same design. Drawings for both had to be redone. Park, already delayed, is on a tight construction schedule to open next fall.

It was the second go-round for South Shore. At first, it was going to be renovated. School officials later opted for a new school because the renovation bids were higher than expected. Instead of renovating for $6.2 million, they are building and designing a new school for $8.8 million.

Mr. Luther admitted contractors boosted their bids for Park by 29 percent over Solley because of the inaccurate drawings. That money won't be recouped.

"I think some of the criticism has been unfair, and it is a source of great frustration to me that people talk about Solley in a negative sense," Mr. Phaire said. "The fact is, notwithstanding all those problems we came in on time, under budget, with a quality building."

The school was built under budget despite the bad drawings because school construction budgets include "contingency" money.

Other problems include:

* Broadneck High School -- Nearly $1 million more for a ventilation system because mechanical systems were not studied before the renovation and addition were budgeted.

* Media centers -- Out-of-date cost estimates for upgrading media centers this year took school officials by surprise. Though the County Council rejected their request for an additional $500,000, School Superintendent Carol S. Parham is preparing to ask again.

* Brooklyn Park Middle School -- Figured at about $9 million in the 1980s, the projected renovation cost jumped from $17 million to $26 million in a year. The final figure is almost double the $14 million it cost to renovate its companion school, Andover Middle.

Mr. Phaire said he based the latest Brooklyn Park estimate on the $23 million Meade middle project.

Other projects have been postponed for lack of money. Marley Middle School, which school board member Thomas Twombly calls "the Rodney Dangerfield of middle schools" because it is in such disrepair, was to get planning money in 1995. That has been pushed back to 2000.

Belvedere Elementary School, once slated for planning money for this year, will not get anything until at least after 2002, according to school system planning documents.

School officials say part of the problem is that there are things over which they have no control, such as when the military will sign off on the two Meade school sites.

Mr. Phaire, who took over the construction department last year, has tried to improve the situation by splitting the staff into on-site reviewers who report to three project managers overseeing 30 projects.

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