State's schools waging battle for contractors

Districts struggle to keep construction projects on track $257.5 million in Md. funds

July 17, 1999|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

School officials statewide -- in the midst of the largest construction and repair campaign in recent history -- worry that fierce competition for reliable contractors may drive up costs and delay badly needed projects.

Blessed by $257.5 million in state school construction money this year, school systems are putting up modern buildings and replacing everything from the pipes and wiring to the roofs on aging structures.

But they've run into snags: In Anne Arundel County recently, officials found no takers when they put out bids for installation of a sprinkler system at South River High School. That job might have attracted several contractors in leaner times.

Throughout the state, the sheer volume of work has forced school districts to compete for a limited pool of workers, even as they take steps to make sure badly needed projects stay on track.

"Our main worry now is, will we have enough staff to run all these jobs and manage this money effectively," said Kathleen Sanner, Carroll County's director of school support services.

It's a challenge faced by districts nationwide, as a feast of school repair and construction projects translates into fat times for contractors already booked up with commercial and residential work.

President Clinton kicked off a "Building America's Schools" campaign, worth up to $22 billion in building modernizations, at a rally in Des Moines yesterday. The proposal hinges on investors' snapping up low-rate bonds to create construction funds.

This summer, in New York City, about 20,000 construction workers have been dispatched to 600 schools, part of a five-year, $6.9 billion capital improvement plan, said Jack Deacy, a spokesman for the New York City School Construction Authority. He attributes the recent rush for repairs to lobbying by parents who wanted better learning environments for their children.

Construction firms are among the big winners.

"It all started about two years ago, but right now, it is about as hot as it ever has been,"said Rick Philipovich, who works for Bovis Construction Corp. in Bethesda, one of many firms competing for school projects around the state.

In Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening set off the boom last year when he promised to try to raise $257 million a year for four years to improve the state's aging campuses. School boards raced to compile lists of elementary, middle and high schools with sagging roofs, cracked concrete and overcrowded cafeterias.

This year, Baltimore County will get $29.4 million to help renovate Randallstown Elementary School and build a new elementary school in Owings Mills. Anne Arundel County will put $13.2 million toward design and construction of three replacement elementary schools. Howard County will use $16 million to build a new high school in Fulton.

Baltimore City's $25 million in school construction money is being spent on such projects as the $7.3 million renovation of Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School and $2.8 million for boiler replacements at 10 city schools.

Gearing up for the "Golden Age" of construction has meant quick management remedies in some school districts.

In Carroll County, school board members hired a special projects coordinator to relieve some of the pressure on the staff, Sanner said. "It's scary and exciting because in the past we could count on one or two big projects a year," she said. "Now, we've got our hands full."

Recently, Baltimore County officials signed a contract with a new director of construction to head up its facilities team. The position had been empty for months, and some board members worried that it wouldn't be filled soon enough, given the district's ambitious construction agenda -- $530 million during the next eight years. And, in an unusual bit of oversight, Baltimore County's building committee has asked to review every change order to avoid overspending.

In Howard County, as in Anne Arundel and Carroll, the school district hires project managers to monitor crews and their work progress.

"We are going to have more to do, certainly," said William Brown, Howard County's director of school planning and construction, whose five-person staff will need extra help to handle new projects. "We supervise everything but depend on outside pros to make the program work."

In Anne Arundel County, technical support officer Mark Moran will depend on district colleagues to make sure projects don't get bogged down in paperwork or run into the red. "We will have everyone involved, from the school principal to the maintenance people, to make sure [a new building] is exactly what is needed," he said. Any design change will go to the school board before implementation.

Despite such careful planning, school officials say they are feeling the squeeze from the heated construction climate.

Overbooked with work at malls, business parks and housing tracts, some contractors don't have time for school projects, said Moran. His office has seen a significant dip in bids received, he said.

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