School cost rises after rock fight

Carroll official sought apology after excavation dispute

Builder got paid to leave

Despite corners cut, cost has exceeded budget by $1.7 million

February 28, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Once touted as an affordable cure for overflowing classrooms in Westminster, Cranberry Station Elementary has proved to be a taxpayer burden instead. Officials are cutting corners as the school is being built -- with thinner roofing material and fewer play areas -- to pay for a project that is already $1.7 million over budget.

Why does the school have such a hefty price tag?

Two words: "I apologize."

Documents obtained by The Sun show that the bulk of the school's 20 percent cost overrun stems from Carroll County school officials' relentless pursuit of an apology from the man they hired to build the school, James W. Ancel.

Prompted by a relatively common dispute over rock removal at the site, the demand for an apology soured the relationship between school officials and Ancel, turning a minor disagreement into a costly battle.

Frustrated by what he called a "vicious and hostile" approach to his firm, Ancel decided to leave. School officials let him go.

The breakup has cost taxpayers dearly.

A review of more than 1,500 documents -- correspondence between Ancel and the county school system, school board minutes, budget requests and bid documents -- shows that:

The Board of Education paid Ancel $1,165,000, part of which was a settlement, to walk away from the project in March 1998.

Since Ancel's departure, the board has hired dozens of contractors to finish the job. Because of market conditions and tight deadlines, the board paid hundreds of thousands of dollars more than planned.

To make up the budget overruns, school officials are cutting corners on the project: using thinner roofing material and a chain-link fence instead of a masonry wall; deleting a play area and cabinets; and reducing the size of an emergency generator. School officials said the changes will increase the building's long-term maintenance costs.

School officials have taken more than $900,000 from other construction projects for Cranberry Station.

All totaled, a school building that was expected to cost $8 million will now cost taxpayers $9.7 million -- more than 20 percent over its projected budget.

And the board is still scrambling to find $347,000 needed to finish the project.

"It's a big waste of taxpayers' money," said Bernard C. Schisler, who served in 1997 on a school construction panel that made funding recommendations for the county. "If it was handled right, the contractor would have stayed on board, and then the taxpayers would have been guaranteed the school would be finished for $8 million.

"The county should look into this and see why this happened," said Schisler, a contractor who has built or renovated more than 90 schools statewide, including 11 in Carroll County.

A different view

School officials have been reluctant to discuss details of the dispute with Ancel. Brian L. Lockard, who was superintendent of schools at the time of the split, refused to comment.

Vernon Smith, who oversaw school construction through June and has since been promoted to assistant superintendent of administration, acknowledged that disagreements with Ancel contributed to termination of the contract.

But he denied that his demand for an apology led to Ancel's departure.

The main reason for the breakup was the board's concern that Ancel would not meet an August 1999 deadline to complete the school, he said.

Smith, who said there was no problem with the quality of Ancel's work, could not cite any time in which Ancel was behind schedule.

When asked how the school system knew that Ancel would not finish by August, Smith replied: "We don't know that."

If Ancel had been late, the consequences would have been stiff. Under his contract, Ancel was subject to a $1,000-per-day penalty if the school was not completed on time.

Cranberry Station is part of a $106 million school construction program to meet continuing enrollment increases in Carroll County.

County commissioners decided several years ago to build Cranberry Station Elementary School and a new middle school in Hampstead with county money instead of waiting for state approval. The county is currently seeking reimbursement from the state for a portion of the schools' cost.

Cranberry Station, a 60,000-square-foot school to be built in the hills overlooking Westminster, was originally scheduled to open in August 1998. The deadline was pushed back one year after the Board of Education decided to change the location of the school and encountered delays in the bidding process. Both factors added minor expenses to the project.

In August 1997, the Board of Education awarded the contract to James W. Ancel Inc., an engineering and contracting company based in Towson.

From the start, there were delays because school officials were late getting several permits and easements necessary for construction. Complications with a water line because of an oversight on construction drawings also slowed the process. A building permit was not issued until Dec. 19, 1997, four months after Ancel was asked to begin construction, county records show.

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