Schools told to improve construction If problems persist, county may take over building projects

'They want to see results'

Committee plans to set standards for review of progress

January 07, 1996|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN STAFF

To stave off a county government takeover of school construction, Anne Arundel school officials need to build schools with so few glitches that the only worry County Executive John G. Ghary has is whether he can get to the ribbon-cutting.

That's the consensus of county leaders, who say the school construction system needs immediate improvement.

"It will take building schools in a cost-effective and efficient manner. It will take not coming back to the well for more money," said Lisa Ritter, Mr. Gary's spokeswoman.

"John doesn't really care who builds the schools, us or them," she said. "What he cares about is that the school gets built, that it serves the students, that it works. And that it gets done without these problems."

In a little more than a year, about $8 million worth of problems -- nearly the cost of building an elementary school -- have surfaced. Cost estimates have been off by several millions of dollars, and designs for elementary schools have been flawed.

In October, Mr. Gary asked the school board to subcontract construction to the county government. In response, a committee was formed of county government and school officials to study the troubled school construction system. Last week, the ing to have to do," said County Council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans. "From an organizational and process perspective, something is dreadfully wrong."

The school system will need better long-range planning, something begun a year ago, and cannot let "politics, schedules, deadlines, whatever" throw it off track, she said.

Board President Joseph H. Foster said that, while it would be unreasonable to expect all problems to be resolved in a year, "I think we can have much of this addressed in a year."

Progress, he said, will mean keeping projects on budget and having bids come in at near the estimated cost.

Some of the report's recommendations, such as how best to staff the office, will take months to work out. Others can be implemented more quickly.

"There are some things we can 'set into place, certainly the cooperative use of resources -- the county's commitment to us to allow us to use their different agencies to help us-we can talk about that and finalize that," said Superintendent Carol S. Parham.

Though county officials say the Department of Planning and Code Enforcement is just a phone call away, Dr. Parham wants a more formal agreement that spells out the department's

obligations to help school planners.

"You would have to create a vehicle. You would have to have somebody designated, an ombudsman, on the county side for the board of ed," said Michael K. Raible, former chief of school planning and construction. He said his seven-years' experience proved that county planners were too busy to provide much immediate help.

This week, the committee will set objective standards by which to measure results. Other moves are in the works. A consultant hired last year is reviewing the organization and workings of the construction office, said Ralph A Luther, director of facilities management for the school system.

A consultant who reviewed the department in the 1980s said it was woefully understaffed. The board increased the staff from six to nine after the report, but that was still well under the recommendation, Mr. Luther said.

Dr. Parham said the school system will consider the review committee's recommendation for a larger-scale audit of the department's work.

"We envision having some architectural, construction firm review maybe one or two projects to see how they did the project," said Robert Dvorak, Mr. Gary's administrative officer and one of the committee leaders. "It may be they did as good a job as they could do. Or it may be a specific problem in the system. Or it could be we keep coming up with the same person who makes the same errors."

The report also recommends reducing the number of public hearings on construction priorities, setting priorities for two years instead of one and creating a prototype school that could be replicated anywhere in the county.

"The public is willing to fund education. But they want to see results," said Mr. Dvorak.

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