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Grand Island Schools Capital Project - 2005
By James M. Mulcahy
January 11, 2005 . . .I believe that the taxpayers of Grand Island need to know the details of what I believe to be the gross mismanagement of the $18.4MM Capital Project that they approved in 1999. This project is going to add over $300 per year to our tax bills. The tax burden in New York State is just that: burdensome. In WNY it is even worse than the average. We don’t need to layer on additional dollars due to mismanagement.
I am using this venue to communicate because the School Board only permits one to speak for three minutes at its bi-monthly meetings. Turnout, understandably given the inability to have a conversation with the Board, is pathetic at best. If it weren’t for the fact that High School students are required to attend one School Board and one Town Board meeting the attendance wouldn’t make double-digits.
My writing style is terse, on a good day. This column is no exception. There is nothing shaded or nuanced in my presentation. I don’t apologize for that. I just want to make it clear, upfront, that I don’t intend to be verbose.
Let me start with a little history for those who don’t know the sequence of events; for those who may have forgotten; and those who may have wished to forget. I’ve numbered the paragraphs as I will be referring back to some later on.
1. On May 18, 1999 the taxpayers approved an $18.4MM capital improvement project to upgrade our schools.
2. Former Superintendent (Supt.) Paul Fields commented at the time that he hoped the construction bids would come in low so there might be funds to fix the High School roof that needed to be replaced. He said the $18.4MM didn’t include funds for this. I will come back to this “nugget” later. However, one has to ask, “why wasn’t the $18.4MM made larger to include fixing the roof? Leaky roofs lead to much more serious problems."
3. The capital project was separated into two parts: The energy conservation component and the rest. The energy conservation piece cost $2,145,802. This would leave $16,254,198 for the rest of the project. Two observations on the energy project: 1) it was referred to “as our award-winning energy project.” What was the award and who awarded it? And 2) where is any discussion of the $2,145,802 in any of the prospecti that the School system has issued in the past two years? I happen to know the answer but I believe that the Board should explain it themselves to the taxpayers.
4. I became involved in the Fall of 2001 when a number of citizens complained to me that the project hadn’t started even though the taxpayers approved it almost 2 ½ years earlier. I obtained a copy of a letter written to the Board and the Supt. on August 28, 2001 by the State Education Department (SED) Office of Facilities Planning. The letter expressed their (the SED) frustration in dealing with our architect (Ed Egan) on the unacceptable condition of the plans even though they had spent substantial time working with him. At the September 10, 2001 Board meeting Supt. Fields announced, “The district is in line for approval of its capital project, possibly in January. District reps. are to meet in Albany with SED officials for a final review.” This statement was made eight business days after the date of the letter from the SED. Did he seriously believe that all of the problems outlined in the letter had been corrected in that time when they hadn’t in the previous year?
5. For those who may be unaware, I came to the January 14, 2002 School Board meeting. I confronted the Board and the Supt. with the letter and their misleading, at best, (my words at the time were lying and conning - I stand by them) communications with the public. It turned out that only School Board President Richard McCowan and Supt. Fields had actually seen the August 28 letter. Messrs. McCowan and Fields fought back. I won’t go into the details but they orchestrated a vicious campaign to discredit me, impugn my motives, and flat-out lie about my background. This took place instead of addressing the issues I raised.
6.I further discovered that since Mr. Egan was a one-man operation and awarding an $18.4MM project under the circumstances was a bit of a stretch (my brother-in-law is an architect who was flabbergasted that Mr. Egan would even consider this project. He wouldn’t do projects in excess of $1.5MM), it was recommended that he partner with another firm. He teamed up with a less-than-reputable individual. I kept pointing out these problems as well as the fact that their cost estimates were seriously out-of-date. I also reminded the Board of the very high likelihood of substantial change orders, with their increased cost, due to the poor architectural plans.
7. In late January 2002 the SED gave its approval. Requests for bids went out and were received in April, I believe. Horrors of horrors, the low bid was about 10% above the available funds. Here is where it gets really interesting. The District “reconfigured” the project, obviously scaling it back, in order to get bids within their budget. This is a key point to which we will come back. The request for bids went out a second time with a due date of July 23, 2002. Some of the plans were still so indecipherable that a couple of the potential bidders split the cost among themselves to remeasure. Since the plans were so bad, the bidders asked for an extension until July 31, 2002 to submit their bids.
8. At a special meeting on August 5, 2002 nine contracts for the Ransom Road phase were awarded. The Monday, August 12, 2002 School Board news on the Isledegrande web page stated, ”Project cost is estimated at $12.7MM, leaving $3.2MM for Huth Road and $2.1MM for Kaegebein, negating predictions by some Islanders that there would not be enough money for renovations at the Elementary Schools.” (Italics added.)
9. Au contraire, nothing was negated. This was just more misinformation from the School Board’s version of Tass. Last I heard, $12.7MM + $3.2MM + $2.1MM = $18.0MM. Refer back to paragraph 3. After the energy portion of the project there was only $16.3MM left. Even with the new math $16.3MM < $18.0MM. These amounts do not include the increased cost due to change orders that totaled $605,962 as of 1/5/05.
10. At a number of Board meetings in 2002 the Board was asked to provide a side-by-side comparison of what was voted on in 1999 vs. what was actually in the plans that the contractors bid on. Here are the responses we received at one time or another. Now I am not making any of these responses up: 1) dead silence, they ignored the request; 2) ”yes, we will provide that”; 3) “we really didn’t mean response 2) literally”; and, my favorite, 4) “there wasn’t any specific plan voted on in 1999.” Response 4) begs one to ask the questions, “how did you come up with $18.4MM amount?” and “do you think the public knew they were giving you a blank check?”
11. Part of the final Ransom Road project included replacing the roof. Remember the ”nugget” I spoke of in para. 2? Mr. Fields explicitly stated replacing the roof was not part of the $18.4MM budgeted for the project. It is here now. This means some thing or some things had to be excised. We know the scope was scaled back because the initial round of bids were too high. We now know it was also scaled back to accommodate the roof repair. Refer to para. 8, where the Board stated that there would be enough for the elementary schools. The only way this could occur is to have scaled back the project. Refer to para. 10, response 4) where it was said that ‘there was no plan’; of course, there was a specific plan. How else can you delete items?
12. At the November 22, 2004 School Board meeting a high school student, Sarah Tanbakuchi, addressed the Board with student concerns about how the monies for the capital project were allocated. Their concerns were that too much was allocated to music and sports programs and not enough for the science rooms. In a spectacular display of hypocrisy, Board member Mrs. Cohen “voiced her frustrations that monies were never set aside to revamp the science rooms even though it was in the preliminary plans to do so.” Time out, sports fans! Mrs. Cohen, who was an active participant in the cabal out to discredit me in 2002, now says there were plans. Her pal, Dick McCowan had denied point-blank to a citizen after one of the Board meetings that there were any plans. Remember, para. 11, response 4), ‘there were no plans’. Again, how could Mrs. Cohen know about a before and after comparison when we were repeatedly told that there weren’t any preliminary plans to be able to make that comparison? Further, Mrs. Cohen was on the board when the contracts were let in August, 2002. Why didn’t she speak up then?
13. How much of these change orders represent true design changes based on new information and how much reflect poorly done architectural drawings. (At least one potential bidder, even after very substantially marking up his bid, passed on bidding at all. He couldn’t get comfortable with the specs and felt there was too much potential for disputes.) Again, Ransom Road has over $468,000 in increases while Huth Road has over $137,000 due to these change orders. Don’t forget that we taxpayers pay for this.
14. At the Monday, January 10, 2005 Board meeting one of the items on the agenda was the ‘Status of Architect’s (Egan) contract. Another item was the ‘Appointment of Trautman Associates as the Architect of Record for Kaegebein School.’ It is clear that Trautman was brought in to clean up the mess that the board created by going with Egan in the first place. There was further discussion about the science rooms. This part of the meeting was surrealistic. The conversation sounded as if this was a new problem that they needed to deal with. No, it was a problem that the Board created themselves by changing the plans and using an architect who, clearly, wasn’t up to a task of this magnitude.
15. I recognize that there have been some changes on the board: Mr. Seaman, Mr. Dallessandro, and Mr. Casey are all new. As are Mr. Ramming, the Supt. and Mrs. Ingrassi, the Asst. Supt. However, the others were part and parcel of this mess. As were Mr. McCowan, Mr. Fields, and Mrs. Blair. Why should the taxpayers have to bear the cost of their incompetence? If there isn’t anything in the NY State legal code to hold them personally liable, there should be. This was not a one-time, in the heat of battle decision. No. It was revisited over and over for years. The taxpayers are going to be expected to pay for these mistakes. They won’t be called mistakes, though. No, it will be phrased that we need to upgrade our science rooms to be a top ten school. Maybe so, but who should pay for it? We will have paid once, already. It is time to demand real accountability from the Board and its minions.
Guest Editorials are not necessarily the 'viewpoint' of the management at Isledegrande.com and GIECOM.Net Inc.
Your response is welcome. Email Editor or address to: Letters to the Editor, 1871 Whitehaven Road, Grand Island, NY 14072