Gary panel to scrutinize school plans Technical committee to review all aspects of building decisions

'Antagonistic attitude'

County executive says he lacks faith schools can supervise projects

July 28, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

If school board members are getting heartburn from the grilling the Gary administration is giving them over the future of Fort Smallwood Elementary School, they should set aside part of next year's budget for antacids.

County Executive John G. Gary is forming an internal technical committee to review every aspect of planning and construction. Given past construction problems, he says he has no faith in the school system's ability to bring a project in on time and within the budget.

And if the school board votes Aug. 7 to renovate and enlarge the existing Fort Smallwood Elementary rather than build a new one, he'll probably go along with the decision, he said last week.

There's just one thing, he added: "I'll fry their butts if they're wrong."

If school officials need more than originally estimated to finish the work, he said he will "tell them to find it in their own budget."

Over two years, the school construction program of the school board has been troubled with cost overruns, unanticipated expenses and other problems amounting to more than $7 million -- nearly enough to build a small elementary school. Gary has been unrelenting in his criticism and threats.

"We are going to keep saying that to them on every project until it gets through their thick skulls that they are not going to get any more money," he said.

Despite the latest harsh words in his war on the school board, Gary said the members should not perceive the technical panel as "punitive."

Board President Joseph H. Foster was less than impressed. "It's very antagonistic type of an attitude," he said. "What happened to this era of cooperation?"

Moreover, county officials already have access to nearly all of the technical information now.

"If he wants to challenge every estimate that is made, that is micromanaging and that is a waste of taxpayers' dollars," Foster said.

School construction commonly takes five years from the time a need is identified until the new building opens, and needs may change in the interim, Foster said. The board, for example, may have to change the scope of a project to accommodate children from a new subdivision.

Gary said he would not hold the school system responsible for changes beyond its control, such as market forces.

After reports of construction gaffes surfaced last year, a committee from the county Board of Education and the Gary administration started meeting to resolve the recurring problems.

A report from the committee last January said the board should )) spend more time and money in the planning and design of buildings to reduce the number of change orders and unforeseen problems.

The School Facilities Department, part of the Board of Education, has initiated a series of changes as a result.

The committee from the Board of Education and the Gary administration continues to meet monthly.

"I'm personally tired of hearing that same, tired story of cost overruns," Foster said. "We have addressed that issue. It is time to move on."

Gary's technical committee, which is ready to begin work, includes three planners, a budget analyst and a member of the central services staff, all of whom already work for the county.

Gary said he has focused on Fort Smallwood because it is the school under consideration.

The school board voted last year to spend $7.4 million to renovate and enlarge the 19-year-old building, more than doubling its capacity, from 247 students to 600.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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