Cranberry Station and the high cost of education


THE INFLATION rate over the past four or five years has been relatively low, perhaps a 2 percent annual rise in the cost of living as measured by the federal government. But as we know, the costs of specific goods and services -- health care is an obvious example -- can increase at a much higher rate.

Nevertheless, the price escalation of Cranberry Station Elementary School in Westminster has to be in a category by itself.

Incredible rise in price

Still under construction, planned for use this August by 600 youngsters, the school has seen an incredible rise in its projected cost -- from less than $6.75 million to almost $10 million in three years.

It was planned in 1996 to open in September 1998 and, more recently, to be completed by January of this year. Both goals have gone unmet.

Cranberry has seen more than the usual problems. The latest involve a disgruntled general contractor whose contract terminated a year ago. There are charges, countercharges and at least one lawsuit, tied to an adversarial relationship between the builder and the Carroll County school administration.

The county purchased the 105-acre site four years ago primarily to build a high school. But the large size of the property (and its $2.2 million price tag) prompted officials to add an elementary school to the site.

The extension of Center Street split the site, formerly a landscape nursery. That suggested placing the elementary school on one side, the high school on the other.

Then the fun began. School planners talked about a $6.75 million cost in mid-1996, with expected savings from bidding the planned Linton Springs elementary (near Eldersburg) at the same time. Linton Springs, whose prototype design was also to be used by Cranberry, was eventually bid separately and opened last year.

As the school system geared up to advertise for bids on the Cranberry project, engineers found a massive table of hard rock under the planned elementary site. The land had been previously tested, to 25 feet.

Test to 25 feet, rock at 26

Unfortunately, the rock formation was 26 feet down. Request for bids was delayed six months.

So the elementary site was moved across the street to share the 65-acre parcel for the high school. That's when the estimated price of Cranberry increased to $7.9 million.

Bids on the project all came in over the school board's estimate. Another round of bidding for a general contractor was held. The low bidder was James W. Ancel Inc. of Towson, an experienced builder of schools in Maryland. He got the contract in August 1997, for $7.7 million.

But the school administration did not have the required building permits when Ancel's heavy equipment showed up to start work. The permits weren't issued until October.

By January 1998, the contractor was in a nasty dispute with the school system (and a subcontractor) on removal of unexpected rock under the new site.

Demanding an apology

The argument centered on frustration by the contractor in reaching a price for the extra excavation work. An intemperate letter from the firm alleging fraudulent conduct raised the hackles of school officials, who demanded an apology.

After much fruitless back and forth between the parties, the relationship was irreparably damaged and the Ancel firm walked away from the job with a $1.1 million settlement a year ago. It's unknown how much of the settlement was for work the contractor had done, and how much was for termination damages, because the agreement was legally sealed.

By the end of last year, with a construction management firm taking the place of the general contractor, the projected cost of the building had risen to $9.7 million.

It would have been $9.9 million but for the administration cutting expenses with a cheaper roof, fewer play areas and vinyl flooring instead of sound-cushioning carpet.

The dispute with Ancel lives on in a $1 million lawsuit he filed against the school board for alleged failure to provide complete documents on the project. There is a hint of a possible school system suit against Ancel over alleged defamatory remarks.

State now investigating

Now the Carroll school board's concern is that the state school construction agency, which pays two-thirds of the cost of new schools in Maryland, will dismiss its claim for reimbursement. The change in materials and the cost of replacing a contractor are under investigation by the Interagency Committee on School Construction. So is school system financing of the Cranberry deficit by moving leftover funds from other projects (that were partially funded by the state).

Let's hope that everyone has learned from this sad saga. Better site investigation, better cost estimates, better relations between school board and contractor.

And, oh yes, let the lawyers see the letters before they are sent instead of afterward.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 3/14/99

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