Construction delays have dried up the $44.7M bond’s contingency fund; district tasks audit committee to tally total expenses and make recommendations
By John Donegan
This story originally appeared in the 6/11/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.
Wedding rings were twisted, and legs shook in their slacks at the Blind Brook School District’s in-person Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, June 8.
But it wasn’t college admissions that hung over the room, it was the anticipated construction update—the latest in two months. With the approved bond, a contingency fund was set up, which totals 5%, or in this case $2.24 million, to account for unforeseen costs. After almost two years of construction delays, the district officially admitted it had exhausted its allocated emergency money.
Both Superintendent Patrick Brimstein and Assistant Superintendent of Finance & Facilities Mary O’Neill confirmed the district is, indeed, running out of bond money—the contingency fund has been depleted. In perhaps anticipation of communal uproar, administrators entered the discussion headstrong and direct, looking to quell any concerns in the room.
They first acknowledged the obvious: the $44.7 million capital bond project, which began in July 2019 and originally intended for a September 2020 finish, has gone on for too long. While this might be common knowledge to many residents, it was important to hear it straight from school leadership. From there, they offered an in-depth timeline, detailing where they are in terms of completion, the current challenges they face and listed what they have to do to finish the work they began two years ago.
“We realized in the fall that we had ran into some serious challenges and needed to make very drastic changes,” said Board of Education President Ashley Welde. “And with a project this size, when you think about getting new legal counsel to help, because we knew that a lot of our problems were based in contractual issues, that’s a big lift to have somebody come in new and learn the history of what’s going on. And then to have a new construction manager join in and get up to speed and then drive it forward the way they have—those are very bold moves (we all) took.”
The project—which promises new classrooms, a cafetorium, a greenhouse, a courtyard and office spaces at Ridge Street Elementary School—began in July 2019 with the intent to be finished by September 2020. That obviously didn’t happen. It suffered numerous delays, including a three-month bout between October and December 2020 of no onsite work. After getting pushed back multiple times, the finish date eventually landed at December 2021—until just last month, when construction management forecasted it would actually be finished in Spring 2022.
The delays influenced the district to end their construction management contract with Savin Engineers and replace them with School Construction Consultancy (SCC). SCC construction manager Will Reece stated that when they inherited the troubled project in Winter 2020, 18 months after the district broke ground, the project was at 18% completion. They estimate now the total project is at 60% completion—42% advancement in the last six months. Reece said it has 25-30 workers onsite per day.
“When we came on board, essentially the project was stalled; nothing was really proceeding,” Reece said. “We were tasked with trying to get a jumpstart on the project.”
Reece confirmed that there were contract disputes at least when they arrived on the scene, though he did not go into detail. Currently, the district is still considering litigation for the construction delays.
“So this summer, does that mean we’re done and can lay back—no way,” Brimstein said. “This summer, we’re doing a lot, both in the building but also the finances of the program.”
The board announced it will tap its audit committee, who will be tasked over the summer to assess and present a review of the total cost of delays to the project. Blind Brook, as all New York school districts, has an audit committee, as it is required by state law. Steve Kaplan, a former board member, heads the committee.
“It will be a good opportunity for them to look at this project carefully and help us with the financial review of it,” Welde said.
Once they figure the total gap in expenses from the delays, the audit committee will recommend ways to come up with the money.
“The audit committee will help us put a price tag on it all and then we can evaluate the overall budget of the project and reconcile the costs to the extent of which additional funds may need to be identified,” Brimstein said.
He added that the committee will present its findings in a public forum, though did not specify when the review will begin.
Christopher Mestecky, a representative from the board’s current legal counsel, clarified that the district is not being hit with any escalation of prices on building materials, except in the case of completing change orders. Typically, as the market inflates, so do building expenses. When schools set aside money for a project, they budget for what the costs are at the time. Due to the delays, there were some concerns the district was forced to pay higher costs for the same materials.
“That is something going on in the industry that you should be concerned about,” Mestecky said. “Your contract has been competitively bid, which provides a fixed price at the time this was bid in 2019.” The fixed bid includes not only price of materials broken down by unit measurements but also a fixed price on labor and tools.
“(Your contract) does have provisions that make it clear that time is of the essence for this project,” he said. “There is a liquidated damages provision that provides for a $5,000 per calendar day past substantial completion, so you do have those protections in your contract.”
Brimstein then pivoted to the board’s two new deadlines: classrooms in the summer, cafetorium in the fall.
Last Wednesday, June 2, the schools shuffled classrooms among its three buildings to make room for renovation of its 12 vacated rooms in the old ‘55-wing’ at Ridge Street School. The next day, Blind Brook school board members toured the construction site at the elementary school.
“Already, there had been so much progress made on the demolition of the ‘55-wing’,” Welde said. “Believe us in that there has already been a benefit in removing the fourth- and fifth-graders; it has just catapulted that part of the building.”
Brimstein, as he did at the May 11 school board meeting, stressed prioritization of the new classroom wing at Ridge Street Elementary before any of the non-instructional additions. Instead of estimating their finish by an exact month, he tabled the district’s timeline by seasons.
The district expects the new classrooms to be ready by the fall, though Reece said the windows to the classrooms will come after the start of school.
“There’s an issue with material deliveries; we’re not getting windows until sometime in September,” Reece said. “This is the reality, something we have tried to contend with, (but) we’re dealing with major window manufacturers with whom we have very little impact.”
Temporary egress windows will be installed in the openings to maintain compliance with the New York State Department of Education guidelines, and the windows will be added whenever they arrive.
“What happens is the windows get installed one night, and the kids come back in the next day with a new view of the outside,” Reece said. “(Crews) will do one or two a night, depending on how long each one takes.”
Once the classrooms are finished, the district said it will focus its efforts back on finishing the non-instructional spaces, including the new cafetorium. The roof decking and columns on the east side of the cafetorium, Reece said, have been finished. The ceiling grid, electrical wiring, and plumbing are all currently being installed.
The district hopes for substantial completion by this winter or next spring.
“I hate to say a date, but they’re forecasting around March, though I don’t know whether that will come to fruition or not,” Brimstein said. “But the classroom space, September: that’s the piece I want you to remember.”