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Committee members unhappy about Gastineau delays

Engineering head calls work with contractor 'frustrating'

Posted: September 10, 2012 - 9:43pm  |  Updated: September 11, 2012 - 12:01am
Michael Thomas, 6, and Nolan Campos, 7, entertain themselves as their mothers work after school in the recently finished office at Gastineau Community School on Monday. Work continues in the Common area, right, kitchen, gym and RALLY room.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Thomas, 6, and Nolan Campos, 7, entertain themselves as their mothers work after school in the recently finished office at Gastineau Community School on Monday. Work continues in the Common area, right, kitchen, gym and RALLY room.

A report from the director of the City and Borough of Juneau Engineering Department indicating the contractor bears part of the responsibility for construction at Gastineau Community School falling behind schedule was heard at a CBJ Assembly committee meeting Monday.

Director Rorie Watt discussed his Sept. 7 memo to Assemblymember Randy Wanamaker, the committee’s chairman, and Juneau School District Board of Education President Sally Saddler at the Public Works and Facilities Committee meeting.

“In short, the renovation of Gastineau has not gone well with regard to the completion date,” said Watt. “I think the design of the facility … will be one that people are very happy with, but the project is significantly behind schedule.”

Watt’s memo criticized Sitka-based contractor ASRC McGraw Constructors, LLC, which is also working on the renovation of Auke Bay Elementary School, over its handling of the project.

“We are working with the contractor ASRC-McGraw to get the work finished as soon as is possible, but that has been admittedly a very frustrating process,” the memo read in part. “Despite our repeated requests, we do not have an updated schedule from them.”

At the committee meeting, Watt softened his tone toward the contractor somewhat.

“I will say in their defense, they are trying to get it done, and … at this point (it is) probably better to have them spend their resources finishing the work than trying to figure out what’s going to be happening a week or two from now,” said Watt.

The current completion date for the school gymnasium is Sept. 24, according to Watt. In addition to the gym, the student commons, kitchen, main entrance and RALLY room remain unusable as well.

All work is set to wrap up by the end of the month ­— some 45 days late — though Watt cautioned that current completion dates are tentative.

Saddler, who addressed the committee after Watt, said Gastineau parents and staff are unhappy with the delays.

“We’ve lost 10 percent of our school year so far,” said Saddler. “It has been disrupted. And the fact of the matter is, we hold our teachers accountable for student achievement, and I guess we would hope that the contractors would also feel some measure and some obligation for accountability for that student achievement.”

The library and music room at Gastineau are open, as is the school’s new office. The computer lab is currently being used as storage space.

Principal Brenda Edwards, who was not at the meeting, said Monday afternoon that while a lot of work remains to be done, “It’s been really nice just to have more space available for students.”

Watt did not back off criticism of the contractor altogether at the meeting, particularly over the matter of responsibility for the delays.

“I think the crux of our dispute with the contractor is that while we had issues that caused delays to them, the overriding reason why the school is late has more to do with the contractors’ scheduling and staffing of the project early on,” Watt said.

One of the issues that caused a delay, Watt acknowledged, was the unearthing of old gravesites at Gastineau this summer. That discovery prompted the suspension of work in front of the school for the first half of July.

After the meeting, Tom Brice, president of the Juneau Building Trades and business agent for the Alaska District Council of Laborers, said, “I think that the contractors faced a lot of difficult questions that have come up over the project. They’ve tried to deal with them probably as well as they could have. Nobody was expecting the graves to be popping up. Consequently, I think that threw a big wrench into the whole project.”

Brice, whose union’s members are working at Gastineau, added, “There’s things that the city wasn’t aware of when the project went to bid. There’s issues that the contractor had to face and had to deal with that threw everything into an unexpected state. I think that’s probably the main source of the delays.”

Ty Hardt, director of communications for ASRC McGraw’s parent company, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., said that the contractor’s view is that a series of unexpected setbacks, including the gravesites’ discovery, problems with concrete floor slabs in certain rooms, and change orders on building materials, caused significant delays.

“From AMCL’s standpoint … there are many owner-caused delays,” said Hardt. “I don’t think that the brunt of this, by any stretch, is on AMCL.”

Like Edwards, Hardt was not at the committee meeting Monday.

Ultimately, Watt said, “I think at the end of the day, you have to look at it and you have to reach the conclusion that for the children and teachers, we failed to deliver a reasonable expectation on this project. School wasn’t ready when school opened, and that’s not the fault of the kids, and that’s not the fault of the teachers, and we need to take responsibility for that.”

According to Watt, liquidated damages for the project are in effect, but the CBJ and ASRC McGraw differ on responsibility for the delays. “No decision has been made about whether to enforce damages,” he wrote in the memo.

“I would anticipate that the contractual dispute between the city and the contractor is going to get a bit more difficult before things get better,” Watt told the committee.

A suggestion from Watt to reevaluate the process by which companies are awarded contracts, including the input of Brice’s organization in looking at ways to reform it, met with approval from Assemblymember Karen Crane.

“I am really glad to see that we are going to do some evaluation after the fact, and involving the Building Trades in that discussion, I think, is really an excellent idea,” said Crane. “I’d like to see if there isn’t some way that we can include the issue of past performance in our evaluation. I think it would make a big difference.”

Contracts are currently awarded, per the CBJ’s charter, to the lowest bidder through a public bidding process.

The school board and Gastineau site council will both discuss the construction project at their meetings Tuesday. The school board meets at 6:15 p.m. in the Juneau-Douglas High School library, while the site council meets at 4:30 p.m. in the Gastineau school library.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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