Wake Ed

January 13, 2014

Fighting continues over Wake County school construction

The way Wake County school leaders want to design new schools is the newest source of disagreement between the county commissioners and school board.

How far will the latest political squabble over school construction go between the Wake County Board of Commissioners and Wake County school board?

As noted in Saturday’s article, commissioners say they want proof of how the school system is saving money in the new $983 million construction program. But you’ve got school leaders warning that the refusal to turn over start-up design funds could result in four schools being delayed and the putting of the new multi-year student assignment plan in limbo.

Last Monday’s commissioners’ meeting agenda included a vote to give final approval to allocate $1.9 million in design funds for E-38, E-43 and M-13 and a vote to give final approval to allocate $1.1 million in design funds fo E-37 and E-43.

What raised questions among the Republican commissioners was that none of the four schools were reuses of prototypes. They’re all new designs for Wake.

“I don’t see how we’re saving money on the use of prototypes,” said Commissioner Paul Coble.

Coble also questioned the money being requested for the designs, saying, “we seem to be paying too much for designs in my opinion.”

“Where are we going with this?” Coble said about not reusing prototypes. “What is the school board’s plan on specifically saving dollars in the construction process on this money?”

Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities, said they often use prototypes multiple times. But he said they were looking for new, quality low-cost designs that could use to open schools in 2015 or 2016.

While the designs are new to Wake, Desormeaux said they’ve been used in other school systems and are being modified to meet the district’s needs. He said is that the design fees came in lower than if they were to start a new design from scratch.

Click here for the RFQ that the school system issued in 2012 that led to the new designs that were chosen for the four schools. Click here for a response that the school system provided to commissioners about why this process was used.

Coble said they’re not getting the benefits of reusing prototypes by switching to these new designs. He said he wanted a “holistic plan” on how the school system will save money.

Commissioner Betty Lou Ward defended the school system, saying “I do believe that they are attempting to move in a direction that does saves money.”

“If we’ve had great architects who’ve built great schools, we ought to continue to use them instead of finding new architects to build new designs,” Coble replied.

Commissioner Joe Bryan asked if they were saving money by going to new designs instead of reusing prototypes.

Desormeaux said they are saving money. He added that they’ve used some prototypes for 15 years but wanted to see what new ones were out there that could save them more money.

“Sometimes it helps to go out and look again and see if somebody else has a better product out there,” Desormeaux said. “Basically that’s what we’ve done here. We know we’ve got something we can use if we need to, but we’ve gone out again to see if we can find something out there better that still gives us the quality we want and at a lower cost.”

The discussion moved on to other topics, such as whether the school system’s use of construction manager at risk was keeping some firms from getting work and why Rolesville High School cost so much.

The ensuing vote on awarding the $1.9 million was rejected 4-3 with Republicans voting no and Democrats voting yes.

Since they voted no, Ward asked what the majority proposed to do next.

Phil Matthews, chairman of the board of commissioners, responded that they had put forward the interlocal agreement on school construction and have offered to meet with the school board. That’s the agreement approved 4-3 on Nov. 18 by the GOP commissioners that formally asks the school board to spell out circumstances under which it might ask commissioners to take responsibility for school construction.

Commissioners had wanted a response at the Dec. 3 school board meeting. But then-school board chairman Keith Sutton asked for a delay to the Dec. 17 meeting. It wasn’t discussed at the Dec. 17 meeting with new school board chairwoman Christine Kushner saying the board still needs to review the proposal.

“We’re not looking very good in the public perspective in terms of our professional and business responsibilities,” said Commissioner James West on denying the funding.

“We’re just causing a bottleneck to me that makes no sense,” West also said.

Commissioners Vice Chairman Tony Gurley, who authored the agreement, said they’re simply asking the school board to give the commissioners “due consideration” when it comes to looking at school construction, maintenance and renovation.

“We are simply fulfilling our obligation, our responsibilities to the taxpayers of Wake County to monitor the spending of money for school facilities,” Gurley said.

Coble offered an explanation for his no vote.

“My frustration in this is if we don’t understand the process now when we’re first starting out with design, then we’re never going to find the opportunity to save money,” Coble said. “If we don’t start out when we’re designing the schools and talk about how we’re going to save money when we’re designing them, I’m afraid we’re going to get down the road and it’s going to be said to us. ‘Well we should have done that back when we were designing and we should have had that conversation then.’ Now is the appropriate time to have this conversation.”

Coble said he wants a joint meeting to get the school board’s game plan on how it will save money. He said he wants nothing more than to be able to say fine with these projects but can’t without knowing more yet.

Commissioner Caroline Sullivan asked if the issue was with construction manager at risk, not using prototypes or because of the interlocal agreement not being aproved yet

Coble said he couldn‘t in good conscience vote yes, He said he also has some questions about the school district’s use of construction manager at risk.

The school district uses CM at risk for projects of $15 million or more.

“Demonstrate to me that CM will get us the most savings in the building process,” Coble said.

Seeing the result of the first vote, Democrats suggested tabling the vote on the $1.1 million in design funds. That was approved unanimously.

In terms of when both boards will meet, it’s not anytime soon.

Matthews said he had hoped for the leaders of both boards to meet last week and for the two boards to gather later this month to speed along the process of approving school construction and renovation projects. But the leadership meeting won’t be until Jan. 22. February is likely the earliest the groups will be able to meet.

County commissioners, Matthews said, are “made out to be the bad guys,” the ones standing in the way of progress.

“But it appears nobody is in a hurry over there,” Matthews said.

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The WakeEd blog is devoted to discussing and answering questions about the major issues facing the Wake County school system. WakeEd is maintained by The News & Observer's Wake schools reporter, T. Keung Hui.

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