Advertisement

The Million Dollar Inch: Roland Park Elementary/Middle School's expensive fiasco

The Million Dollar Inch: Roland Park Elementary/Middle School's expensive fiasco
The controversial Terracotta roof tiles at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

The Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, an elegant, 92-year-old brick building on Roland Avenue, is caged in scaffolding, with tarps covering the first five or eight feet of the roof all around and nets guarding the eaves. There are stacks of buckets running from the roof to the ground to shunt the heavy clay roofing tiles into dumpsters.

On the surface, it seems a good sign of the city's vaunted school rebuilding project, a billion-dollar renovation program that state legislators green-lighted three years ago to bring the city's long-neglected school buildings into the 21st century.

Advertisement

But it's not.

In fact, it's a sign of a whopping mistake that is costing taxpayers more than a million dollars to fix and points to larger problems with project management and construction oversight in the city.

Turns out that pricey tile roof was installed by two different contractors for a bid price of $1.6 million and finished last fall as part of the school system's regular capital improvement program. And now the school system is set to pay more than $1 million to a third contractor to tear it all off and install asphalt shingles instead.

Few in the community are aware of the ongoing roof saga.

On the afternoon of May 2, the usual huge traffic jam surrounds the school as crowds of children, many with parents in tow, flood the sidewalks, past Eddie's of Roland Park and toward late-model luxury SUVs. Four parents say they don't know much about the roof. Three of those declined to give their names to a reporter (the lone exception was WBAL-TV anchor Jason Newton).

"You're telling me things I didn't know," one dad says, when told that the new roof is being trashed. "I know they've been working on it two years," he says.

"Two years too many," the dad standing next to him says as their kids run around a nearby fence.

"It gives the feeling that there is probably a lot of problems with the procurement process," a mom says. "They take the low bidder."

An April 6 letter to the parents from J. Keith Scroggins, the Baltimore City Public Schools chief operating officer, is meant to be reassuring. It explains the scaffolding in terms of a continuing project, as if it is perfectly normal, a half year after installing a new roof, to tear it off and start over. "For more than a year, work has been underway on a major project to replace and repair the roof," Scroggins wrote. "Unfortunately, due to the January blizzard and other setbacks, the project has been delayed."

The reality is at once simpler and devilishly complex. The district contracted first roofer, SGK Contracting, Inc., then another roofer, Island Contracting, Inc., to install a fancy and expensive clay tile roof because it was in keeping with the historic architecture of the building. Both failed to do it properly, but this was not noticed until the January snowstorm destroyed large sections of it, sending heavy roof tiles tumbling three stories to the playground below. Now Autumn Contracting of Springfield, Virginia, has been hired on an "emergency" basis to tear off the new roof and replace it with more pedestrian asphalt shingles at a bid price of $1,045,700. All of this has happened quietly, behind the scenes, with only a few architects and historic building fans noticing.

The million-dollar waste going on just above their heads has made no appreciable impression on most parents, who worry about safety first: The heavy clay tiles could fall on their children's heads, some say, so the roof should be replaced. They are countered by an architect who insists that the tile roof be salvaged and re-installed to save both money and the historic character of the school building.

Both sides agree on one thing: The botched roof job and the administration's misleading public response to it illustrate key weaknesses in the BCPS' procurement system. Poor construction management and procurement practices mean Roland Park is just the latest quiet debacle, these people say, and its very quietness means reform is unlikely.

James Determan, an architect and past president of the Wyndhurst Improvement Association, wrote a letter to Schools CEO Gregory Thornton asking, among other questions, "Why would BCPS remove a brand new 50-year clay tile roof and install a 20-year asphalt shingle roof in its place, instead of repairing the limited damage to the clay tile roof?"

Determan recruited a brace of fellow design professionals to press the issue. The American Institute of Architects Baltimore Chapter President Anthony Consoli and Preservation Maryland Executive Director Nicholas Redding sent letters to Scroggins, the school board, and the Baltimore Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP). They asserted that—even notwithstanding the clay tiles' much longer design life—the building's historic character and location inside a historic district pretty much require that the clay tiles be on its roof.

Advertisement

The problem with this argument is straightforward: The school building is not currently part of any historic preservation zone. CHAP has no particular jurisdiction here. Informed of this, Redding amended his original letter to read "just outside a National Historic District." He said it doesn't change the principle of the matter: "We also believe the building and its roof is eligible for the National Register, which is the standard by which CHAP often operates," he wrote in an email to City Paper. "Clearly historic buildings deserve attention and respect—and we hope the City will do that and also save taxpayers' dollars in the process."

Determan is adamant that the school administration is compounding its mistake by throwing away the clay roof. He suspects incompetence within the city school system's contracting office has contributed to the problem. "The architects pushed for this," says Determan. "Unfortunately the procurement for BCPS is terrible—they go with the low bidder."

Determan's battle to save the tiles raises a question he doesn't ask: Why was this school, in one of Baltimore City's most prosperous neighborhoods, selected for an extraordinarily expensive, inordinately complex roofing system in the first place? The documents City Paper was able to access do not address this issue, though it is likely Roland Park residents simply had the influence to make it happen in their neighborhood, while public schools in less wealthy areas lack such powerful advocates.

Determan says the Roland Park Civic League board voted to support the reinstallation of clay tile on the school last week.

"I would advocate not doing it," Trish Garcia Pilla, a parent, counters. "All the new windows are not historic… so who gives a crap about an asphalt roof if we have ugly windows? I mean what's the big deal?"

Garcia Pilla is an active parent in the school. She also lives in a house with an old clay tile roof, and says it's a bother. "When I have to get them replaced, it's $84 a tile," she says. "It took us eight years to find someone who would work on it."

Advertisement

She says the clay tiles require special maintenance and handling. "One of our contractor dads says you can walk on them but you have to know how to do it," she says. "Well that's not much better [than not being able to walk on them]. The maintenance of a tile roof is insane. That's what they didn't think through either."

Several calls and emails to the city schools press office, and to Scroggins himself, yielded almost no response.

Several parents and community members told City Paper that the roof contract was in litigation. "That's why they won't talk to you," Garcia Pilla says. Among interested parties who say they have been in meetings with Scroggins, it's all but an article of faith that the school system is suing the contractors in order to recoup the performance bond, so taxpayers will be made whole.

"What we were told in our meeting is that the district is fronting the money to fix the roof right now and hoping to recoup the money in litigation," she says, sighing. "The district does not have the money to front it."

But City Paper could find no evidence of a lawsuit against SGK, the original contractor, or any related bond or insurance company in court records, and Scroggins denied there was any. "We haven't paid them because we're in dispute," Scroggins says on May 3 after the School Board meeting.

He estimates that roughly 60 percent of the original $1.6 million contract price has been paid, while the $1 million "emergency" repair by Autumn Contracting is from "local funds"—meaning the city school district's capital account.

Although there is no current lawsuit by the city school system against SGK or its proprietor, George Koumoudis, the court record Koumoudis has amassed does not inspire confidence. He has been ticketed repeatedly in recent years for driving without a valid license plate, driving on a suspended driver's license, and other traffic infractions. He was arrested in 2001—a year before he and his brother founded SGK—for vehicle theft (he was acquitted) and petty theft. There was tax lien and, last year, a surety company lawsuit that was dropped.

Despite these infractions, SGK appears to be a thriving business, having gotten city contracts to re-roof the Thurgood Marshall Middle School ($2.8 million), Federal Hill Prepatory School #45, Rosemont PK-8, and Furley Elementary #206.

"Can you call me back, I'm trying to get a bid out real quick," Koumoudis says when reached by phone. He does not respond to follow-up voice mails asking for comment about the Roland Park job.

The other contractors were no more forthcoming. "I don't want to comment on it," a man who gave his name as "George" said when reached at Island Contracting's listed cell number. Asked why, he said, "Because we've not completed the roof yet… I don't want to comment on it. Thank you," and hung up.

Island has not had this contract for a while, according to Sam Hwang, who owns Autumn Contracting, Inc. "That's our contract. That's all we know," he says, before clamming up. "I'm not an engineer. I'm a contractor. I would like to not talk to you anymore…I've never had a reporter contact me before. We still have relationships with this contract."

One reason for the lack of overt litigation is that "the contractor has got the school system over a barrel," says one person who has done roof-related work for the city school system and asked that his name be withheld due his company's relationship with BCPS. He explains that the school system's construction supervisors will sign off on plans or drawings that are inadequate. The contractor will then say they were building to the specifications of the contract, and so they aren't at fault for the failure. "The school will finally say, 'How much do you want to walk away?' and the contractor will say maybe 75 percent."

This sort of arrangement is common, according to this person, who cited another case he witnessed three years ago at the Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School. First the design was wrong—the roof was too flat. Next the project managers signed off on payments that got way ahead of the work that was being done.

"They had paid about 90 percent, for about 60 percent of the job," this person says. "It was a horrible design, and it wasn't built to code."

He says that went to litigation as well, costing the school district additional thousands of dollars, though City Paper could find no trace of that case either.

The degree to which the Roland Park Elementary/Middle School roof was botched comes clear in an engineer's report the city contracted after the snow-related failure. Dated March 11, the nine-page report by Restoration Engineering, Inc. is lavishly illustrated with photographs of the contractors' shortcomings.

"We determined that roofing failures occurred due to inadequate fastening of the snow guards, improper tile layout…improper batten fastening and other miscellaneous deficiencies," the report says.

Both SGK and Island had spread the tiles too thin, leaving too much of each tile exposed to the weather and insufficiently overlapping the tile below or to one side of it. The difference was only an inch, but in an engineered roof system, an inch less overlap can be significant. The battens—one-by-two strips of wood to which the tiles are nailed—were spaced farther apart than the project design called for, and the engineer recommended they be removed and replaced by the correct strips that would be supplied by the tile manufacturer, Boral.

The clay tiles needed more overlap to prevent water damage.
The clay tiles needed more overlap to prevent water damage. (Illustration by Charlie Herrick)

And then there is the issue of snow guards. Snow guards are small metal fences, usually no more than six inches high, that are screwed into the roof to hold back heavy snow loads so they don't avalanche down and tear off the gutters. "There is a company called Alpine which will engineer these," says one roofing expert, who did not want his name used because he sometimes works for companies employed by the school system. "The problem I see is the architect in many cases won't do it—he'll basically just draw a dotted line near the bottom of the slope…and the contractor will say, oh, he wants a snow guard. And nobody gives any thought to it."

The snow guards used on the Roland Park roof were made of looped wire, which the Restoration Engineering report says isn't strong enough for the job. In addition, the guards were not screwed down with the number of fasteners necessary for them to work as designed.

The errors compounded. Restoration Engineering found a section of roof in which SGK, "in an attempt to correct a layout error," cut tiles and butted them together with no overlap at all. "This is NOT an acceptable solution," the engineer wrote (emphasis in original), "as the lateral intersection…allows water to shed directly below the tiles onto the underlayment."

Advertisement

There were voids and air gaps "along all valleys and ridge intersections," which left exposed wood where there should have been mortar joints.

Even the flat roof sections—which are the sort of things these contractors should have been familiar with—were done wrong, the engineer reported.

SGK had installed the roof sections that failed in the blizzard, and Island Contracting had removed the damaged sections and tarped them, according to the report. The engineers recommended that all the tiles and battens be removed and then reinstalled over a new membrane.

Tim Nickels, president of Advance Moisture Protection, specializes in church roofs, including slate and tile roofs. He says the Restoration Engineering report appears to be spot-on. (Disclosure: Advance re-roofed this reporter's home with asphalt shingles last fall for about $10,000, which is how we know him). Nickels says it appears that the school system did not properly vet either SGK or Island before giving the job to them.

"Basically, someone didn't look to see if they had the ability to do the work," he says. "This [roof] system never had an opportunity for success, because of lack of knowledge."

The bid specifications required all bidders to submit proof that they knew how to do the job. "Proposals will be considered only from Contractors that have been actively engaged in similar size and type of work for a continuous period not less than the last preceding three (3) years, under the same management as that in effect at the time of the proposal," reads a bit of boilerplate in the bid solicitations. It is unclear from the available documents what qualifications SGK and Island submitted.

"The snow guards were wire—like a little toy," Nickels says. "They should have had snow rails."

"Somebody in that department, which is engineering, should have said, 'We made a mistake…but this has got to stop,'" Nickels says, echoing the opinion of other professionals who declined to go on record because of their relationships within the school system.

Multiple sources City Paper talked to gave names of qualified area contractors. City Paper asked Baltimore Schools to reveal which other contractors bid the Roland Park job. We did not hear back from the school spokeswoman.

Notwithstanding the alleged incompetence, the city's school system has a long history of contract fraud. Between 2004 and 2008, 11 maintenance and facilities employees were criminally convicted in a corruption scheme that had operated since at least 1991. Gilbert Sapperstein of Allstate Boiler Service was sentenced to 18 months in prison, but the politically-wired vending machine company owner only served a month before he was released to home detention. Rajiv Dixit, who was the school system's facilities manager for more than 20 years, received a five-year prison sentence. Millions were stolen.

Roland Park Elementary/middle school surrounding in scaffolding
Roland Park Elementary/middle school surrounding in scaffolding (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

Reform has come slowly. A 2012 Legislative Audit found that "Competitive Procurement Policies Were Not Always Followed," continuing problems with procurement procedures on "two large contracts," overpayment for overtime and leave, and missing computers, and said the district "Did Not Ensure Contractors Had Properly Completed Maintenance Projects Prior to Payment," among the 26 findings it reported.

And this: "A Long-Term Facilities Master Plan Was Not Prepared." (The plan finally came into being a few years later). A facilities master plan guides policy makers in determining, for example, which school roofs should be replaced when. In the current plan, dated 2015, Roland Park Elementary Middle School is slated for renovation in "Year 6" of the 21st Century School Building Plan.

That plan—a billion-dollar program funded by borrowed funds backed by earmarked state money as well as the city's bottle tax—promises a transformation of the city schools. The construction and contract management is to be handled by the Maryland Stadium Authority.

"The people who managed [The Roland Park roof] are not the people who will manage the 21st Century School building project," Garcia Pilla says.

The money that the state has traditionally granted for school renovations is now being earmarked to pay off the debt for the new construction program run by the Stadium Authority. Money tied up in school system-supervised do-overs cannot, by definition, be allocated to pay the interest on those bonds.

The school system's own capital budget has been highly variable, ranging from less than $200,000 at the end of 2008 to more than $77 million in 2011, according to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for fiscal 2015. By that year's end the fund balance was listed as $7.8 million—one-tenth the figure of four years before. Annual budget books give conflicting figures for the same fiscal years, no doubt owing to the fact that each project is accounted for according to its expected duration, with millions flowing in and out of the capital account as money is appropriated and projects are—allegedly—completed.

To a layperson the accounting appears to be as much art as science, but the science is gaining, slowly: The current proposed budget includes $20,000 for a new "comprehensive management system" for the 21st Century building program to identify assets in the schools for preventive maintenance.

The line item is revealed during a slide show at the school board meeting on May 3. The $1.2 billion operating budget contains cuts to the school police department and other items, but a $10 million boost to the capital improvement program as a result of the 21st Century School Buildings Plan. Next year's capital improvement agenda includes five heating and air conditioning systems, four school roofs, window replacement at two buildings, and "one fire safety implementation."

As the board gets ready to vote unanimously for the budget, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Gregory Thornton tells the members: "When you don't have the luxury of additional revenue…you do the best you can with what you have. And the reality is, sometimes the best is just not good enough."

His replacement is announced publicly an hour later.

Advertisement
Advertisement