Parham eyes outsiders for construction Plan would cost more but save in long run, says school chief

'Buying expertise'

Board members eager to silence criticism of building division

December 05, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Hiring an outside company to manage school construction would cost nearly $500,000 a year more than is spent now but would save money in the long run, Superintendent Carol S. Parham told the school board yesterday.

Parham unveiled her concept for curing her ailing school construction division to a largely receptive school board.

"You are buying expertise," Parham said. "All the support staff that is needed for that project is coming from that company."

Board members have been looking to escape a barrage of criticism of school construction and to enlarge the woefully understaffed division.

Several reports in recent years have identified shortcomings and insufficient staffing, but budget constraints have prevented the hiring of more staff.

"Thank you," board member Janet Bury said to Parham. "It is an awfully good start."

Board President Joseph H. Foster, who urged caution, nonetheless said the proposal "looks very good."

A two-hour work session on the plan is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Board of Education.

Parham's proposal calls for a five-year contract with a single company for management of major new school construction, renovations and additions. She would like it to start July 1, with the new fiscal year.

All costs would come out of the capital budget, not the operating budget. Parham said discussions with school systems that have had similar plans show that the costs, roughly 2 percent of the project bottom line, are offset by long-term savings.

Wake County, N.C., spent $2.2 million on additional privatization costs for a $100 million building program, but the projects came in $9 million under budget, she said.

The biggest disadvantage is likely to be a loss of day-to-day control of school construction.

The school construction division has been troubled for more than a decade and ridiculed by county officials. Last year, The Sun identified more than $7.5 million in cost overruns, design mistakes and construction errors during a two-year period.

Parham's plan would eliminate half the 12 jobs in the construction division. Five of the six jobs are filled by contract employees whose salaries are paid out of the capital budget; the sixth job to be eliminated is vacant.

The contract workers generally manage large projects. The key difference, said Ronald Beckett, associate superintendent for business and support services, is that these workers are employed individually by the school system and do not have the varied expertise of a single large company as a resource.

What is left of the construction division would be reorganized to retain control of the capital budget, plan school construction and deal with minor projects.

Anne Arundel County government has used a similar concept for years, employing Heery International for a variety of management tasks. But Heery is being phased out, except for management of unique construction projects, such as the jail and the courthouse.

County Executive John G. Gary said though a spokeswoman that he welcomed Parham's proposal. His top aide, Robert Dvorak, who attended the school board briefing, was noncommittal.

"It's too sketchy to tell," Dvorak said. "We will have a better idea after the workshop."

Pub Date: 12/05/96

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