Carroll school construction plans are criticized over pace and costs; County officials stress opening can't be delayed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Carroll County built an elementary school amid the hilly farmland just outside Westminster, the project was hurriedly begun without proper permits, was behind schedule from the start and cost more than expected.

Last month, investigators detailed those problems in an independent report that school officials played down, saying they've fixed many of the construction woes from two years ago.

Now, Carroll County is building a high school -- a $34.5 million project that many people say has been hurriedly begun without county planning approval, is behind schedule and will cost taxpayers more than expected.

"Insert the word 'high school' everywhere you see 'elementary school' and you have the same yellow brick road. Look out, Dorothy, here comes the tornado," said Tracy Burke, a South Carroll parent who has fought the school board and county commissioners to stop construction of the school. "I'm appalled because if you substitute the names and you substitute the places, it's the same stink all over."

To Burke and other parents and county taxpayers, the new high school is another example of questionable management practices by a school system scarred by lawsuits and a grand jury investigation into possible kickback schemes and thefts in the construction department as well as overall misspending in other departments.

Most school and county officials insist they're not rushing into anything with the new high school, which has been in the works since the early 1990s. Rather, they say, they have set an aggressive construction schedule because, unlike a supermarket or department store, the opening day of a school cannot be delayed -- even by a month or two. Westminster's new high school is scheduled to open in 2002.

"This pace is not an overly aggressive pace by any means," said school construction supervisor Raymond Prokop. "I've been on jobs that went one heck of a lot faster under much more pressure. We're moving at a normal pace, and we're going to get the most bang for our buck that way."

Construction documents circulating through county government offices for review are stamped "RUSH."

Investigators who conducted the internal inquiry into school construction projects indicated that many of the problems and nearly $2 million in cost overruns at Cranberry Station Elementary were caused by inexplicable rushing.

Investigators also warned against signing contracts without having funds and transferring money between projects. School and county officials have done both with the new high school, according to county records.

'Fast-tracking'

The school system spent thousands of dollars on the property next to Cranberry Station off Center Street -- including $150,000 on a tunnel that is no longer needed -- before the county and school system settled on the site as the location of the new school.

Prokop describes the method of this project as "fast-tracking," and says the county must start work soon if it is to have the entire project bid out before new labor wages take effect July 1.

Although grading was scheduled to begin April 17, the county has not released the grading permit.

And the county development review office has not received the school system's final site plans for review by various county agencies and the planning commission, an examination process that could take up to three months.

School officials refused a contractor's request to extend a mass grading bid deadline after the school system issued six new site drawings less than a week before bids were due.

And a retired contractor and planning commission member says the county will pay more than top dollar if they keep up this pace.

"They've rushed through projects like this before, and it cost them a whole bunch of money," said Maurice "Ed" Wheatley, who has spent three years on the planning commission and 40 years as a contractor. "I can criticize them for not having good construction sense. But there are so many things with this [high school] project that don't even make good business sense."

Bid for mass grading

The mass grading project is a good example, Wheatley said.

Applying for the $850,000 job of leveling the steep high school site brought a 1 1/2-inch-thick book of project specifications and about 20 poster-size drawings of land elevations and water mains. On March 20, contractors met with representatives from the school's construction and purchasing department in the public meeting room of the school administration building. School officials set March 30 as the due date for bids.

"It was pretty well told to the contractors that even though things would change during the bidding process, the date that the bids were due would not change," said a contractor with one company that was interested in the high school mass grading project. He asked that his name not be published for fear that criticism might affect his company's chances of getting work with the school system.

"It was a forced issue, which is true and evidenced by the fact that it has not yet been reviewed by the planning commission and has not received their permits yet, which is usually a fair indication that things are being pushed along quicker than they need to be," the contractor said.

Three days after the pre-bid meeting, the school system sent out a 10-page document and several sketches answering contractors' questions about the job. Such clarifications are common in construction projects.

A day later, they issued two more pages of clarifications, six new drawings and an amended schedule.

The next Monday, the last day for contractors to submit questions about the project, the school system sent out another two pages of clarifications. Included in the clarifications was a refusal to extend the bid due date despite significant changes in the drawings and requirements of the project.

"When I put together a bid, I've got to sit down and tear those plans apart and read every word in that book and understand it because it is a legal document and we've got to live by those rules," said the contractor, who bids on about $100 million worth of work every year.

"We can always put together stuff and do it on a moment's notice. The better question is whether this project was presented to the contracting community in the best interests of the county, and from a layman's point of view, I think it was rushed."

Asked whether the project will require a significant number of change orders, which add expense to the project, the contractor said, "I think there's money to be made on this. As a business, we would have been delighted to have that job. As a taxpayer, I'm irritated."

Wheatley, whose decades-long construction career included site work for schools in Howard and Baltimore counties, said the effect of rushing the preparation of bids is that contractors inflate price estimates to protect themselves. "You've got to have time and if you don't, you consider the project a high risk and you throw in high prices because you don't want to go broke on it," he said.

No state money

Plans for a new high school in Westminster have been part of Carroll schools' master plan and capital budget for years as a way to ease crowding at Westminster High School, one of the state's largest schools, with more than 2,000 students. The state endorsed plans for the new school in 1996, which all but guaranteed a large chunk of state construction money.

But two years ago, South Carroll parents persuaded the county to change its plans and relocate the approved new school to South Carroll, where Century High will open next year.

When Westminster parents complained that their school had been stolen, the commissioners promised another would be built.

The state's committee on school construction has said that five-year enrollment projections do not make Carroll eligible for state construction money, making Carroll the first county in the state to proceed with a high school project without the promise of partial state reimbursement.

Costs for the 1,200-student high school spiraled in August from $29 million to more than $38 million, in part because excavation and rock removal at the site will cost $5.6 million more than anticipated.

To cut several million dollars from the cost, school officials redesigned and shrunk the campus in November, eliminating practice space for athletic teams.

"If I were building a building of any kind, I would not build it on that site due to the substantial amount of rock that would be encountered," said James W. Ancel, the original contractor hired for Cranberry Station Elementary who parted ways with the county after a dispute over rock removal turned ugly. After leaving the job unfinished, Ancel filed a $45 million defamation lawsuit against top school officials. The suit was settled in December, with the school system making no admission of guilt but agreeing to pay Ancel $60,000.

"Obviously, removal of that rock makes the project prohibitively expensive," he said of the high school site, which is adjacent to his former work site. "It appears they're not learning from their mistakes, and I wonder if they would be building on that site if they were spending their own money."

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