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Schools

Pinellas school projects' costs criticized

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published June 28, 2007


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The process for building and renovating Pinellas public schools has been flawed for years and may have raised costs to taxpayers, a new report says.

A four-month review of five school projects found a "deficient" planning process that often lacked enough early input and vastly underestimated costs.

The result: mid-project adjustments or "change orders" so numerous they exceeded the national average and increased the risk of unnecessary expenses.

The $35,000 review, conducted by the international consulting firm Faithful + Gould, also concluded that Pinellas' costs for constructing and remodeling schools "exceeded state averages." The company urged Pinellas officials to meet with their counterparts in Hillsborough County, who consistently build less expensive schools.

"It appears that there are some very helpful lessons to be learned that will enable the district to reduce the costs for future construction," the report said.

The report singled out the new $56-million Gibbs High in St. Petersburg as a project with too many mid-course changes and a budget that became "a moving target." The most expensive school project in district history, it "was not managed as well as it could have been," the report said.

The news comes amid a tough environment for the district, with the Florida Legislature ordering cuts and scrutinizing local government spending.

Like other large school districts, Pinellas budgets hundreds of millions of dollars annually on construction, renovation and land purchases. In recent years, the number has hovered around $250-million. This year, the district budgeted $388-million.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and the School Board authorized the review in February after Wilcox became concerned about cost increases for projects and a high number of change orders.

A low point came recently when the estimate for the reconstruction of Boca Ciega High School topped $100-million. Shocked by the number, Wilcox pressed the contractor to lower the bid to about $60-million.

The review, he said, "pointed out what several of us have been thinking since I got to the district." Wilcox became superintendent in November 2004.

He said changes in the system already were under way. Perhaps the biggest one, he said, was the September 2005 hiring of Leon Hobbs as associate superintendent for institutional services, overseeing school design and construction.

Hobbs, a former superintendent in Florida and Alabama, has started a staff reorganization that he says will make the district's construction process run "smarter and more efficiently."

Said Wilcox: "We haven't just been sitting on our hands waiting for this report to be finished. ... Some of us knew intuitively what needed to be done."

He added: "We're very aggressively working to make sure that what people get is what they're paying for."

He said it was premature to say that public money was wasted until the district digs more deeply into the reasons for the consultant's conclusions.

Of particular interest is why construction contract costs for some Hillsborough schools are so much less than those for similar-size schools in Pinellas.

Tale of two districts

The Faithful + Gould report contained no cost data on the five Pinellas projects it examined. But a review of the state's online database for school construction costs clearly shows what the report referred to when it stated that Hillsborough "was consistently a greater economical model than Pinellas County."

An example: Construction contracts for Shore Acres, Sunset Hills, Campbell Park and Gulfport Elementary schools came in at between $11-million and $12-million in 2003 and 2004.

The cost was between $6.5-million and $8.5-million for four Hillsborough elementaries built at the same time with similar square footage and student capacity.

"I do not know why that is, but we're certainly going to spend some time with those people in Hillsborough," Hobbs said. "You would think that our labor structure, construction and material costs should be very, very compatible."

He said one reason for the difference might be that Pinellas has more extensive construction specs for its schools. For example, Pinellas might plan for higher wind tolerance than Hillsborough, he said.

Wilcox cited possible differences in material costs, the timing of projects and how buildings are situated on sites as other variables that might cause the variance between the two districts.

But he emphasized that he was perturbed at how the district had gone about building schools in recent years.

Some examples: failing to aggressively seek out energy-efficient features and not having the "organizational discipline" to stick with a plan.

The penchant for changing and customizing deep into a project often undermined the district's plans to cut costs by using the same set of plans for different schools, Wilcox said. "To me, that kind of seems like construction management run amok."

Too often, he said, principals were allowed to suggest substantive changes to projects.

"That's not a good use of their time," he said. "That's not what they're trained for."

Among the consultant's recommendations: that the district consult more community members, officials from other agencies and parents when designing schools, and that it develop more realistic cost estimates.

Outsiders to review

Local construction costs increased by about 38 percent from 2000 to 2005, yet the district accounted for inflation by adding only 3 percent each year to its estimates, the report said. The practice "created a (high) level of strain on the (construction and renovation) budgets."

Hobbs said he planned to start the practice of having outside firms review contractors' construction estimates and inspect completed projects to ensure the district gets what it pays for. The outside companies would augment what the district's internal estimators do, he said.

He also said there would be little tolerance for mid-project changes.

"I don't want any change orders," Hobbs said. "Change orders are not going to be very well received by me or the superintendent."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.

 

COST COMPARISON
A consultant says the Hillsborough school district tends to spend less on construction contracts than Pinellas schools. Here are some examples:
SchoolStudent
capacity
Net
square feet
Construction
contract cost*
PINELLAS COUNTY
Shore Acres Elementary (2004)71669,469$11,337,157
Sunset Hills Elementary (2004)74467,616$11,935,080
Campbell Park Elementary (2003)73267,616 $11,002,217
Gulfport Elementary (2003)73267,616$11,004,818
HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY
Davis Elementary (2004)1,10671,000$8,507,216
Bryant Elementary (2004)946 67,797$6,368,757
Heritage Elementary (2003)98765,085$7,860,321
Schmidt Elementary (2003)85565,766$6,580,220

* Does not include other costs such as architectural fees, engineering and site improvement.
Source: Florida Department of Education

 

 

[Last modified June 28, 2007, 07:46:30]


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