Schools drop builder's contract

Balto. County criticized firm for asbestos leaks

2 companies to finish work

May 30, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

In the middle of school renovation projects costing $500 million, the Baltimore County school system has ended its relationship with the Houston-based company that had been overseeing construction at dozens of elementary schools for the past two years.

In recent months, school officials have made no secret of their displeasure with some of the work being done by 3D/International Inc. It supervised construction at 46 schools, including two with highly publicized accidents involving the release of potentially hazardous asbestos fibers.

But the school board, which is being tight-lipped about the termination of 3D/International's multimillion-dollar contract, effective immediately, is saying the agreement to sever ties with the company was "mutual."

"We've had an amiable parting of ways with 3DI," said Donald F. Krempel, executive director of facilities for the school system.

"They wanted to go pursue other avenues, and we're pursuing other avenues," said school board President Donald L. Arnold.

Those other avenues include a new contract approved by the board in a last-minute move late Tuesday night, without public discussion, which will pay two Towson construction companies, Whiting-Turner Construction Co. and Oak Contracting Corporation Inc., as much as $4.14 million to oversee $111 million in renovations at 36 elementary schools.

The school system does not have the staff to directly oversee projects of such magnitude without outside assistance, officials said. But the new arrangement, officials said, will give the school system more direct command over the work being done without doing it all themselves.

"We wanted to control the program internally, which we felt we could do," Krempel said.

The agreement to drop 3D/International has been in the works behind the scenes for weeks, with the board meeting in closed session with their attorneys on more than one occasion to discuss the matter. After those discussions, those involved were careful not to condemn the company, but officials earlier had criticized 3D/International both publicly and privately.

Officials with 3D/International's Baltimore office did not return several calls seeking comment.

The county schools' contract with 3D/International was originally for $6 million for the first 45 schools. The company was expected to make more than that on phase two, but neither budget, construction or communications directors could find that information yesterday.

The company was overseeing construction at Hawthorne and Villa Cresta elementaries, where asbestos accidents forced the cancellation of classes.

During a public meeting at Villa Cresta, school officials blamed an industrial hygienist from 3D/International for misidentifying the gravity of an asbestos spill -- a decision that caused parents, teachers and pupils to spend the day and evening in the Parkville school despite the presence of asbestos particles in the air.

Three other elementary schools under the watch of 3D/International were also closed briefly after asbestos scares.

After the Villa Cresta incident in March, Krempel said in April: "I think there are some performance issues with 3DI that I'm not overly pleased with. ... They don't always have, in my judgment, the necessary talent and experience in their project managers. In any construction program of this magnitude, your field inspector is crucial because that's ... where the problems are solved initially."

Last summer, several schools were in jeopardy of not opening in time for pupils. One -- Randallstown Elementary -- opened a week late. A dozen boilers were not in place by Oct. 1. School system employees had to help so the heat could be turned on Oct. 15, Krempel said in April.

"It's about time," Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said yesterday of the termination of the 3D/International contract. "Obviously they never did the job they were supposed to do in many cases."

Teachers, who return to schools a week before their students, found several of them not fit to work in last August.

"What happened is teachers had to work around dirt and construction and had a very difficult time in some buildings," Beytin said. "I can't say that's all 3DI's fault, but it seems to me they never followed through in what they were doing."

In the absence of 3D/International, 25 construction projects will be managed by Whiting-Turner Construction and 11 will be managed by Oak Contracting. The projects -- which range from installing new ceiling tiles and lighting to removing asbestos -- are scheduled to be completed during the summer.

No decision has been made as to who will handle the remainder of the renovation projects. Next in line are the middle schools.

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