School back on drawing board

Balto. County, fearing cost overrun, halted plans for 6 months

March 26, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Fearful that anticipated construction costs for New Town High School had ballooned to $14 million over budget, Baltimore County officials quietly halted the project six months ago.

The architect was told to stop design work. The construction manager was instructed to move on to other jobs. And then, in an effort to shave millions off the cost of the school, county officials took an unusual step: They approached Howard County officials and offered to pay $600,000 for the designs of a high school being built there.

After months of talks, Howard officials declined the offer, leaving Baltimore County with the same preliminary drawings that had set off alarm bells in September.

One school official says the county intervened too quickly on the basis of numbers that were only rough estimates. The county says it was just trying to ensure the project was brought in at budget. Whatever the case, the project is back in the hands of the school system, and Superintendent Joe A. Hairston says New Town will open on time and within its $36 million budget.

"We're still within our time frame," said schools spokesman Charles A. Herndon.

But the developments of the past few months have left two of the project's key players scratching their heads.

Grimm and Parker Architects of Calverton and the construction manager, Towson-based Oak Contracting Corp., say they have never witnessed events like those surrounding the planning of New Town High School.

"It was the first time in my professional career that we were kept completely out of the loop," said Stephen Parker, president of Grimm and Parker Architects. "Every time I talked with people at the school system, they would tell me to just be patient."

The project is facing tight deadlines. Concrete footings must be poured before winter if the school is to open in September 2003. Before the cement mixers arrive, design work must be completed, permits granted, grading completed and utilities installed at the site on New Town Boulevard.

School officials admit the pressure is on. This is the first high school to be built in the county since work was completed on Owings Mills High in 1978. The New Town community, a booming area of tract homes in Owings Mills, has been clamoring for a high school for more than a decade.

"There is tremendous overcrowding in schools in the area," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin, an Owings Mills Democrat. "This is important. There's really no excuse for putting this project on hold for any amount of time."

School officials, including Hairston and Deputy Superintendent Christine M. Johns, did not want to delay the high-profile project. They worked with County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and budget and finance director Fred J. Homan in hopes of obtaining a less expensive high school design from Howard County, records show.

Hairston and Johns have been on the job for less than a year, but are aware that the school system has a spotty record of managing construction and repair projects.

Since 1996, when internal audits found that the school system's Division of Physical Facilities was improperly, and in some cases illegally, bidding contracts, county officials have kept careful watch over the department. County Council members request regular updates on building projects. Recently, they complained that the school system wasn't spending state money for repairs quickly enough.

But the New Town project was progressing well, said Donald F. Krempel, who has been associate superintendent for the division of physical facilities for about two years. When asked about the projected $14 million budget overrun, he said, "I don't know where that came from."

Krempel said that the county intervened in the school construction project at a time when his office was working with a "very preliminary drawing" and that budget numbers are fluid by design.

"There is a process involved in any new construction of a school, in which you look at the number of students and the educational specs to determine what, if you could have everything you could get, you would have," he said. "And then you work back toward your budget."

Krempel said that if someone from the county got the impression that the school system was going to use those early designs and budget numbers to build New Town, a school that could house up to 1,500 students, they were "absolutely incorrect."

"At no time in my mind was there ever a commitment to go over budget," he said. "We don't do that."

County officials tell a slightly different story.

Records show that Richard Cassell, capital program administrator for the school system, asked the county for help with the New Town project at the end of September. George Klunk, a property manager with the county Office of Budget and Finance, was invited to sit in on a design meeting.

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