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Shoddy work hits school hard

A school proud of its rebound now is reeling, and School Board members want a criminal investigation.

By COLLINS CONNER and BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published June 21, 2004

photo
[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Work proceeds at the original Homosassa Elementary structure Friday as questions continue about flawed construction of the new media center and cafeteria built behind the school. Residents will have a chance to vent at a town hall meeting Thursday.

Chart detailing shoddy construction:
Click for full graphic.
photo
[Times chart]

HOMOSASSA - Last September, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings traveled west on a thin, winding road, past a two-building industrial park, a blueprint/propeller shop and a post office the size of a mall kiosk.

She was on her way to Homosassa Elementary School, the pride of this tiny community on the coast of Citrus County.

Homosassa Elementary is the poorest school in the district. Most of its 400 students get free or cutrate lunches.

Jennings was there to celebrate. This school had brought its "D" grade to an "A" and held it there for four years. Just after lunch, she and a cluster of students climbed into a huge inflated bubble to catch dollar bills being blown through the "money booth."

There was another notable event in September: Crews started a $3-million facelift at the school, the first campus improvements of any significance in more than 30 years.

But as this school year came to a close, the community learned that the newly constructed cafeteria and media center were missing most of the steel and grout they needed for strength and wind resistance. The roofs aren't properly attached. The walls aren't connected to one another. Support beams are too poorly put together to support anything.

Literally hundreds of defects were somehow missed by the design firm, the builder, his construction superintendent, the building inspector, the national engineering firm that employed him, the school district's building official and the district's project manager.

Last week, School Board members called for a criminal investigation.

Moments later, they learned that, for the fifth year in a row, Homosassa Elementary's students earned the state's "A" grade for academic excellence.

For the school, it was hard to feel joyful.

"That staff and those children have stepped up to the plate and they have delivered," said their outraged principal, Roberta Long. "They deserve a house that matches their academic performance."

The unraveling of this construction debacle began in April with a call to the St. Petersburg Times' editor in Citrus, Jim Ross. The voice on the other end instructed Ross to look inside the newspaper's rack at an Inverness shopping center. For his quarter, Ross got a stack of construction photographs with handwritten notations explaining the pictures.

The caller said if his name got out, it could bring harm to himself and his family. But he was also afraid for the children of Homosassa Elementary School. These two new buildings are unsafe, he said.

The Times consulted with structural engineer Jimmy D. Schilling, a Satellite Beach expert who has testified for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation in discipline cases involving defective design and construction.

In the photos, Schilling saw construction so deficient, he offered to drive across the state and examine the buildings at no cost to the school district or the newspaper. Block walls that should have been filled with steel rods and a hardened pudding of concrete, called grout, were missing one or both of those reinforcements.

Two days after Schilling's comments were published, the buildings' designer, Ted Williamson of Williamson Dacar Associates of Safety Harbor, told the Citrus School Board that a preliminary check of the building uncovered a surprising number of problems.

Despite those flaws, he assured the School Board, the cafeteria and media center are structurally sound. "You can go to any building and probably find a few" of these problems, Williamson said. The general contractor, Williamson said, examined the cafeteria and found only three spots where grout was left out.

Still, as a precaution, the board hired a testing company to examine the buildings.

The assessment of school officials at that meeting was that the photos were taken by a "disgruntled worker" who - if he was that worried - should have reported the problem to school officials.

The thing is, he did.

Before anyone contacted the newspaper about the project, there were plenty of red flags.

As early as December, the half-dozen officials charged with overseeing the project were complaining about the sloppy work of the mason, who hasn't been publicly identified. R.E. Graham, the builder, fired her in January, tore down an interior cafeteria wall she built and ordered the replacement mason to spruce up the rest.

Three months later, the foreman of the air-conditioning crew looked into a hole in a media center wall and saw no grout or steel. Just above the hole, a huge metal roof beam, which should have been anchored to the wall with bolts embedded in concrete, was bolted instead to little more than thin air.

Before long, the shoddy construction was common talk among the local contractors who met for breakfast each day.

"Shame on every one of them for not telling us," said School Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick.

It was hardly a secret.

As the School Board has now been told, the mechanical crew's foreman, Randy Rogers, and his brother Mark, who owns Certified Air Conditioning, complained to the builder's superintendent, Mitch Feaster, and district building official Dick Dolbow. The board was told that Randy Rogers said Feaster instructed him to hide the hollow blocks so the wall could pass muster. Feaster denies saying any such thing.

Dolbow sent the district's project manager, Sam DiGuglielmo, to examine the wall. DiGuglielmo checked but told Dolbow he saw nothing.

Building inspector Harold Varvel, an employee of the national engineering firm of Berryman & Henigar, had examined various stages of construction in more than 30 visits to the campus. He now says he wasn't called to inspect the wall reinforcements and scolded Feaster and two district employees for the missed calls. They deny that ever happened; Varvel didn't document any of it, according to his boss.

Williamson, the designer, says he regularly visited the campus but looked mostly at the appearance of the buildings, not their structural integrity.

Central Testing Laboratory of Inverness approved the roof construction after inspecting it, finding deficiencies and reinspecting.

Assurances aside, Long, the principal, was so disturbed by Schilling's comments, she went to the buildings after hours. "I climbed up a ladder and looked," she said, "and I knew something was wrong."

To examine the buildings' walls, the district again hired Central Testing. In the media center, the company found that 88 percent of the required reinforcing steel or grout was missing. Most of the supporting beams over windows and doors lacked grout. In several places, the roof frame could be moved by hand.

Weeks after Schilling's offer to examine the school, district officials and Williamson agreed to meet him for a few hours on Memorial Day weekend.

Schilling discovered a 500-pound beam so poorly attached to the cafeteria wall, it could collapse onto the stage. When he drilled into what was supposed to be reinforced block, "my drill went through the grout like butter." He examined four areas of the media center's roof and found "significant structural defects" in all four. Then Central Testing released its report on the cafeteria. At least half the reinforcement was inadequate. Two of every three steel beams were bolted into hollow or nearly hollow blocks not strong enough to hold them. The roof was missing welds.

The company also found 11 places where workers attempted to add reinforcement to walls after they were built. Of those, eight attempts failed.

"The only time I've ever seen (defects) on previous projects as bad as the buildings in Citrus County is when payoffs and collusion were proven," Schilling said.

At the advice of Fitzpatrick, their attorney, School Board members agreed to have:

* Williamson design the repairs;

* Graham perform them, with Feaster remaining on the job with a lesser title;

* Berryman & Henigar continue their inspections, though Varvel won't get the assignment;

* DiGuglielmo replaced as project manager, though he didn't lose his district job;

* Dolbow continue to serve as the building official.

Fitzpatrick told the board it was obligated by its contract with Graham to let him fix the deficiencies. Moreover, he said, Graham would pay all costs of assessing the defects, designing the fixes and making them.

The community erupted.

"How can you continue to use the contractor who has proven without a doubt that he can't do the work?" Homosassa resident Winston Perry asked the board. "Why rehire the inspecting agency who was supposed to be overseeing the inspections?

"I think you need a whole new cast of characters."

At its meeting last week, the School Board brought in an independent expert at construction rehabilitation to oversee the repairs.

Board members asked Fitzpatrick to seek a criminal investigation of the defective construction and its alleged coverup. A day later, David Hickey announced he will retire when his single term as elected superintendent ends in November. He isn't leaving education because of the construction problems, he said, but they're his biggest professional disappointment.

Long, the principal, is retiring at the end of this month. The construction defects are an awful send-off, she said.

"That school is not just a building," she said. "To these children, that building is a dream. And to that community, it is hope."

Back in Homosassa, residents were stunned at these calamitous events. Some parents threatened to home-school their children rather than send them back to Homosassa Elementary. To give them a chance to vent, the local civic club scheduled a town hall meeting for 7 p.m. Thursday. The school advertised the meeting on its campus marquee. A notice was taped to the post office window.

Among the invited guests is Lt. Gov. Jennings.

"We desperately need your help to ensure the safety of our children and to make sure the local authorities don't sweep this problem under the rug," the club's invitation said.

"Help."

Jennings won't be attending. The matter should be handled locally, she said through a spokesman Friday, but added she will check whether the state can take action.

[Last modified June 21, 2004, 01:00:30]

photo
[Photo by Jimmy D. Schilling]
Among structural engineer Jimmy D. Schilling's findings was a damaged steel beam in the school's new media center roof.

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