Once touted as an affordable cure for overflowing classrooms in Westminster, Cranberry Station Elementary has proved to be a taxpayer burden instead. Officials are cutting corners as the school is being built -- with thinner roofing material and fewer play areas -- to pay for a project that is already $1.7 million over budget.
Why does the school have such a hefty price tag?
Two words: "I apologize."
Documents obtained by The Sun show that the bulk of the school's 20 percent cost overrun stems from Carroll County school officials' relentless pursuit of an apology from the man they hired to build the school, James W. Ancel.
Prompted by a relatively common dispute over rock removal at the site, the demand for an apology soured the relationship between school officials and Ancel, turning a minor disagreement into a costly battle.
Frustrated by what he called a "vicious and hostile" approach to his firm, Ancel decided to leave. School officials let him go.
The breakup has cost taxpayers dearly.
A review of more than 1,500 documents -- correspondence between Ancel and the county school system, school board minutes, budget requests and bid documents -- shows that:
The Board of Education paid Ancel $1,165,000, part of which was a settlement, to walk away from the project in March 1998.
Since Ancel's departure, the board has hired dozens of contractors to finish the job. Because of market conditions and tight deadlines, the board paid hundreds of thousands of dollars more than planned.
To make up the budget overruns, school officials are cutting corners on the project: using thinner roofing material and a chain-link fence instead of a masonry wall; deleting a play area and cabinets; and reducing the size of an emergency generator. School officials said the changes will increase the building's long-term maintenance costs.
School officials have taken more than $900,000 from other construction projects for Cranberry Station.
All totaled, a school building that was expected to cost $8 million will now cost taxpayers $9.7 million -- more than 20 percent over its projected budget.
And the board is still scrambling to find $347,000 needed to finish the project.
"It's a big waste of taxpayers' money," said Bernard C. Schisler, who served in 1997 on a school construction panel that made funding recommendations for the county. "If it was handled right, the contractor would have stayed on board, and then the taxpayers would have been guaranteed the school would be finished for $8 million.
"The county should look into this and see why this happened," said Schisler, a contractor who has built or renovated more than 90 schools statewide, including 11 in Carroll County.
A different view
School officials have been reluctant to discuss details of the dispute with Ancel. Brian L. Lockard, who was superintendent of schools at the time of the split, refused to comment.
Vernon Smith, who oversaw school construction through June and has since been promoted to assistant superintendent of administration, acknowledged that disagreements with Ancel contributed to termination of the contract.
But he denied that his demand for an apology led to Ancel's departure.
The main reason for the breakup was the board's concern that Ancel would not meet an August 1999 deadline to complete the school, he said.
Smith, who said there was no problem with the quality of Ancel's work, could not cite any time in which Ancel was behind schedule.
When asked how the school system knew that Ancel would not finish by August, Smith replied: "We don't know that."
If Ancel had been late, the consequences would have been stiff. Under his contract, Ancel was subject to a $1,000-per-day penalty if the school was not completed on time.
Cranberry Station is part of a $106 million school construction program to meet continuing enrollment increases in Carroll County.
County commissioners decided several years ago to build Cranberry Station Elementary School and a new middle school in Hampstead with county money instead of waiting for state approval. The county is currently seeking reimbursement from the state for a portion of the schools' cost.
Cranberry Station, a 60,000-square-foot school to be built in the hills overlooking Westminster, was originally scheduled to open in August 1998. The deadline was pushed back one year after the Board of Education decided to change the location of the school and encountered delays in the bidding process. Both factors added minor expenses to the project.
In August 1997, the Board of Education awarded the contract to James W. Ancel Inc., an engineering and contracting company based in Towson.
From the start, there were delays because school officials were late getting several permits and easements necessary for construction. Complications with a water line because of an oversight on construction drawings also slowed the process. A building permit was not issued until Dec. 19, 1997, four months after Ancel was asked to begin construction, county records show.
During the first full month of work, Ancel's crews struck a rock field where the school parking lot was planned. The board asked that excavation begin before figuring out how much rock was there, letters mailed by the school system show.
Ancel objected. Under a standard clause in his contract, the amount of rock and cost of removal had to be determined before it was blasted away. Removing rock is expensive, and agreeing on a price beforehand is important because it's difficult to prove how much rock there was once it has been removed.
Ancel's company also questioned how the rock was measured, saying in correspondence with the school system that the method used made it appear there was less rock than there was.
"The method CCPS [Carroll County public schools] used to calculate the rock would not measure all the rock. CCPS was purposefully trying to underpay our firm," Ancel said in response to written questions from The Sun.
Letter offends official
Last February, Ancel's project manager for Cranberry Station wrote a letter to school system administrators pointing out the problem.
Vernon Smith took issue with one passage of the letter:
"Quite frankly, we are becoming increasingly concerned that CCPS is not dealing in good faith. These actions are fraudulent and a fundamental breach in contract."
Smith responded by asking for an "unequivocal apology," demanding that it be on his desk by 1 p.m. Feb. 17, 1998.
Smith, who said he "vaguely" remembered a dispute with Ancel, said Ancel's accusations could have caused problems.
"We took strong exception to that. When you have a file where someone accuses you of not acting in good faith, to allow it to continue is a mistake. It could come back at some point," he said.
Ancel, whom documents show was reluctant to offer an apology without discussing the matter first, asked several times to meet with school officials.
They refused, correspondence shows.
Instead, school administrators aggressively pursued an apology, asking for the resignation of Ancel's project manager and threatening to terminate Ancel's contract for default, letters mailed by the school system show.
"We tried to meet with Vernon Smith to provide him with an explanation," Ancel said in a written response to questions. "I even offered to apologize to Vernon Smith if he was not satisfied with the explanation, but Vernon Smith never relented on his demand for an apology, and never relented on his refusal to meet and discuss the matter."
Finally, Ancel decided to terminate his contract.
Under the terms of the contract, Ancel could get out of the contract if his work had been delayed more than 120 days through no fault of his own. By his count, Ancel had been unable to work for 133 days because of the permit and water line delays.
A flurry of correspondence between Ancel and school officials followed. The officials again threatened to find Ancel in default.
Last March, instead of pursuing its allegations of default, the board paid Ancel $1.165 million to terminate his contract.
A portion of the money was for work performed; the rest was settlement money, school officials said. Under its agreement with Ancel, the board is not allowed to discuss the financial details of the settlement.
Dr. Ronald Smith, president of the Geo-Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said rock removal is the most common source of disagreements between contractors and their clients in the Baltimore/Washington region.
The soil in the area is packed with broken, decomposing rock, the remnants of old mountains, he said.
"The transition from soil to rock is not clear," he said, which makes quantifying rock a difficult and often disputed task.
Most cases are settled peaceably, but a few land in court, Ronald Smith said. It is rare for the contractor and client to terminate a contract, and rarer still for a dispute to lead to a demand for an apology, he said.
Delon Hampton, president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a contracting consultant with 25 years of experience, also said that requests for written apologies are not usual in the construction business. But once one side has accused the other of dishonesty, it is difficult to resolve the dispute, he said.
"It's unfortunate. It's a case where you've got two sides solidified in positions and no easy way out," he said.
County Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who sits on the school board as an ex-officio member, said he was aware there had been a dispute between Ancel and school officials, but did not know the details.
"I'm not in a position to comment. I don't know much about it," he said, adding he was reluctant to discuss the matter for legal reasons.
Although he is disappointed about spending more than expected on the school, Vernon Smith said he had no regrets about the termination of the contract with Ancel.
"What in my mind makes it worthwhile is that we will have a brand-new elementary school in August," Smith said.
Ancel has moved on to other construction projects, including a $4.9 million elementary school addition and renovation in Anne Arundel County. School officials there said they are pleased with Ancel's work.
"Everything's fine," said Lisa Crawford, Anne Arundel school facilities specialist. The project is expected to be finished in August, on time and within budget.
Pub Date: 2/28/99