Schools building managers debated

Commissioners say firms unnecessary, costly

other officials disagree

Carroll County

July 15, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

The money, nearly $3.3 million, was supposed to pay for a construction management company to oversee several major projects for Carroll County public schools. A new elementary school would ease classroom crowding in Mount Airy. North Carroll Middle -- where the septic system has failed, the heating system is unpredictable and the roof leaks -- would be renovated.

But the county commissioners have quietly trimmed those millions from their budget, sparking a debate over whether construction managers make for efficient projects or a bloated bureaucracy.

Now, one school board member says he and his colleagues might be left with no choice but to halt the projects before the first nail is hammered.

"If the commissioners refuse to release the money to pay for the services required by a construction manager, I cannot in good conscience see moving forward with those projects," school board member C. Scott Stone said. "We'll have insufficient funds to build the projects and there's a legal liability if the board grants contracts and moves forward with a project knowing we don't have the money to complete it. If that's not illegal, it should be."

The school board and county commissioners are scheduled to meet this week to discuss the matter.

Construction managers serve as the day-to-day, on-site overseers of a project. They develop schedules and provide cost estimates, handle bidding for subcontractors and prepare field reports. They also frequently recommend changes in the work, coordinate tests of the new school's systems and handle operation manuals and equipment warrantees.

"They're your advocate and they're looking out for your interests," said Raymond Prokop, the school district's facilities director, who spent 12 years with Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. as a project manager specializing in mechanical and electrical systems.

"It's essentially like hiring additional staff for the duration of a project who are experts in their field," Prokop added. "Those are the folks who, when you hire a company to do this, have much deeper resources than we do. We couldn't do what we hire them to do for us."

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier disagrees.

The school system turned to the expertise of construction managers, she said, when it did not have qualified staff in its construction department. But as professionals with construction experience, such as Prokop, replaced teachers who had been promoted to the facilities department, the services of construction management companies became redundant, she said.

"They hired those people and that's what they're supposed to be doing. If they don't want to do their jobs, we'd be glad to do it," Frazier said. "We could build and they could teach, and I think that would be a good idea."

She said her board voted unanimously during budget discussions to cut the funding for construction managers.

"We can talk about it again," she said, "but unless somebody has some real compelling information, I think I'm convinced we can save money by not having the construction managers as a middle man in there."

The use of construction management companies has been popular with school systems in Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties. But in Baltimore County, where school officials had made no secret of their displeasure with work by a company that had been overseeing construction at dozens of elementary schools, the school board decided in May to sever its relationship with the Houston company.

Carroll schools officials began using construction managers when the district embarked on an ambitious $106 million construction program to meet the needs of Carroll's rapidly growing population.

Oklahoma Road Middle, which opened in 1997, and Linton Springs Elementary, which opened in 1998, were built with a construction management company overseeing the projects. The school system completed a huge $16 million renovation of Francis Scott Key High in 1999 with students moving from wing to wing of the school as the construction management company coordinated the work.

"It's difficult to really compare, but we know you get a lot more services out of a construction manager than a general contractor and the jobs go much smoother," said Superintendent Charles I. Ecker. "Cranberry Station [Elementary] was a general contractor job in the beginning and you remember Cranberry?"

A county grand jury that investigated botched school construction jobs described the building of that school, outside Westminster, as a "textbook example of what not to do."

The project was a year late, more than $1 million more than budget and the impetus for costly lawsuits filed by the general contractor, who left in midproject when disagreements with the school system could not be resolved.

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