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When Will It Be Done?

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School Construction Testing Patience Of District Officials

By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

They say Rome wasn't built in a day.

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Neither, apparently, was the modern American high school.

After more than two years of construction, countless delays due to heavy rains, subcontractor firings, poor planning and an increasingly tense relationship between the builder and the Glenwood Community School District, Glenwood’s new $21 million high school is still not finished.

And no one seems to know when it will be.

In it’s quarterly report to the Glenwood School Board on April 13, Construction Services, Inc. (CSI), the general contractor for the high school, offered few answers when asked when the long-overdue project would be completed.

Construction commenced on the project with preliminary dirt work in December 2007 with a planned 20-month construction phase. Originally scheduled to be completed in time for the start of the 2008-2009 school year last August, the school’s move-in date has been pushed back four times since.

Dan Biere, president of CSI, was at the quarterly meeting and confirmed for the board that a majority of the 140,000-square foot high school’s classrooms, administration areas and gymnasium would be done by May 20, in time for the district’s scheduled May 21 move in. The school’s 750-seat auditorium and cafeteria areas remain behind schedule.

Biere is uncertain when these areas would be completed but said he was confident the school would be completed, inside and out, by August.

Glenwood Superintendent Dr. Stan Sibley said he’s glad the district’s move-in can remain on schedule but he’s certainly not happy to have a nearly finished high school eight months after the district was supposed to have a completely finished high school.

“We have had to compromise on the ending day, obviously,” said Sibley, pointing to the original planned opening. “Our plan was to have this year’s graduating class and the other students in for the second semester of this year. But there’s not a whole lot we can do about that now. We do not control the schedule. CSI controls the schedule. We may not be happy about it, but that is the case.”

Biere understands the board’s, and potentially the taxpayers’, frustration with the construction delays, but says many of those delays are out of his control.

“I always take an unhappy client personally,” said Biere. “I guess the job is in an unfortunate situation that due to a multitude of things, including wet weather the last two years, the failure of three subcontractors, combined with a relatively complicated building has pushed the project back on schedule.”

Biere said the muddy conditions have been the biggest factor in that delay.

“The Loess Hills soil on the site holds water really nicely. It makes a really nice pond. But it also makes it difficult for construction to continue on any scheduled pace when you have rain that is double the amount you’ve had in the last couple years.”

Ted Mintle, the owner’s representative for the district on the high school project, agrees that heavy rains in the early phase of construction has played a major factor in the delays but he says mistakes have clearly been made throughout the build.

A concrete footing error in the foundation of the school caused a three -month delay in the fall of 2007. Mintle also said CSI’s reactive vs. proactive approach to dealing with the wet weather compounded the rain issues and prevented indoor work from being completed before the winter freeze.

“Everything snowballs from one thing to the next, to the next,” said Mintle.

Mintle estimates the project was already seven months behind schedule in December 2007. He declined to predict when the building would be finished

One Glenwood School Board Member didn’t shy away from his prediction for when the high school would be completed in an exchange with CSI representatives at the April 13 meeting. Frank Overhue said he doubted the general contractor would be done before August.

“This is a mess,” said Overhue at that meeting. “When are you going to be done? Don’t blow smoke, this has been going on for two years, now we want to know: When will it be done?”

Dave Egr, CSI on-site project manager replied, “It will be done before school starts.”

The 2009-2010 school year is scheduled to begin on Aug. 26.

To prove his point, Overhue offered a wager: if CSI can actually produce a finished high school for the district by August, he will pay them $5,000. If not, CSI will donate $5,000 to the Dollars For Scholars, a district scholarship program.

“That’s something we can consider, Frank,” replied Biere.

Sibley admitted he’s a little wary of a school district wagering money with a contractor to complete work already contracted, but said he “loved” the idea as a benefit for Dollars for Scholars.

“We are still holding CSI’s feet to the fire,” said Sibley. “They have to have it done by May 15 because that’s when they said they would have it done. It’s clear that’s not going to happen. But we are not going to give them a date to have it done. We want it done on that date or as soon after as is humanly possible.

“If that means they have to man up, pay overtime or do unusual things to get the manpower down there to do it, then they better do it. We will not give them the situation of saying ‘Okay, we’ll wait until Aug. 1,’ because if it’s one thing we’ve learned about (CSI), it’s that they’ll relax between now and July 25.”

Sibley said it’s important to know he would rather have a delayed high school than a poorly-built, hurried high school.

“The message CSI and this community should know is we are focusing on quality and we will do all we can to get to encourage, to force CSI’s hand to get that building done in a reasonable time,” said Sibley. “I don’t want to give them until June 1. I’m giving them May 21. And if they can’t get that done, then they better be working their fannies off to get it done as close to that date as they can, because that’s the deadline we’re looking for.”

But could a delay have been prevented with a penalty clause or an incentive for completed work?

Sibley said the district never considered such stipulations for one simple reason: money.

“I am quite confident that if we would have put in a penalty clause, our costs would have been much higher and we would not be in the position we are now of being able to fully furnish and equip the building,” said Sibley.

Which brings in the good news. The construction delay has meant a windfall of nearly $500,000 for the district in the form of interest on construction bonds. Sibley said that is more than just a little bright spot that will go far in equipping the school.

“When we started down this road we didn’t think we would be able to provide chairs for the auditorium,” Sibley said. “With that $500,000 and some other private funding, the auditorium will not only have chairs, the quality of the chairs and the lighting and sound system will be improved. It’s a huge bright spot.”

Biere said the delay may turn out to be a bright spot for the district, but it has cost CSI money. He declined to elaborate on how much of a financial hit CSI has taken on the project.

“Quite frankly, the school district has made money on the deal because of their bonds and the contractors have had to take a significant hit,” said Biere. “This is certainly not a position we choose or want to be in. It’s just been a lot of things that are out of our control.”

Sibley denied the district’s relationship with CSI is strained, calling it “business-like.”

“Any construction project is an exercise in problem solving,” Sibley said. “But I would be lying to you if I said we have total confidence in CSI and their ability to identify and develop a schedule and hold to it.”

Sibley said CSI’s scheduling has not improved in more than two years since construction began. Sibley personally asked representatives of CSI prior to April 13’s quarterly report for a detailed schedule showing exactly what they would have done by May 21, exactly what they would not have done and what they will be doing to facilitate the school’s planned May 21 move in date.

CSI produced no such schedule.

“You can see our frustration,” Sibley said.