Ben Dahan news editor
Lauren Hannani culture editor
Students may be wondering why they are still sitting in bungalow classrooms while the school’s buildings supposedly are under construction but remain hollow and unconstructed. However, progress in construction has been happening behind the scenes, even though the changes are not yet physically noticeable.
Over this last summer, no physical construction took place at the high school’s main buildings. Instead, the district’s architecture plans for the project were in the process of being reviewed by the Division of State Architects, the government agency responsible for approving site plans for school districts.
“Nothing happened over the summer,” Assistant Superintendent of Construction and Facilities David Jackson said. “[Because of DSA] the earliest construction will start is second quarter 2018 at the high school.”
Although the actual school hasn’t changed much since last year, with the notable exception of the renovated sports field, the district has formed a new construction team, which it believes will be more efficient and manageable than relying on the contracted program management team of previous years, Totum Consulting.
“My construction background really isn’t in the public sector; it’s more with apartment buildings and stuff like that,” Jackson said. “So I’m learning as I go, but when the Board fired the old program management team and construction management team, they allowed me to put together a team that is just outstanding.”
Who’s in charge?
During a meeting on Sept. 26, the Board of Education unanimously approved a contract with Team Concepts Development Services, Inc., and principally its founder and CEO, “preeminent construction guru” Don Blake, who will take control of the construction across the district.
“I’ve been around construction guys my whole career, and [Blake] is really smart. He knows what he’s doing,” Assistant Superintendent of Business Services La Tanya Kirk-Carter said. “We’re really fortunate to have him.”
According to Blake, his company will manage the master planning, budget and cost accounting, design management, construction management, claims management, risk management, schedule management and reporting to stakeholders. Blake may effectively take the position of Jackson, who was hired to fill the position until a more permanent replacement was found.
“There is a very good possibility if we get somebody really great, we won’t need my position anymore, which would save the district the money they’re paying me,” Jackson said.
According to Kirk-Carter, one of the issues that former Director of Construction and Facilities Eiton Aharoni and Totum faced is their inexperience with K-12 school construction.
“The board wanted to see more control, more program management…which is not usually what you have to do with a community college, where you have one building, not a whole school district,” Kirk-Carter said. “With both Totum and Aharoni, it was the community college and university, not the K-12.”
Blake, on the other hand, brings with him decades of experience in the school construction arena. Blake is still creating his team, deciding if district holdovers from Totum and even Jackson will be on it, and is expected to announce his team by the end of November. According to Superintendent Michael Bregy, as the district’s construction projects evolve, the district’s team will grow as well.
Also contributing to these projects is Terry Tao, another top player in California’s school construction scene working for the law-firm AALRR.
Tao was brought on board by Kirk-Carter, who has worked with him since 2001, in the spring of 2016 to help the Board of Education get a handle on the construction. Tao, in turn, brought Blake to the district.
“Don is someone who has a demonstrated history of delivering projects with the district’s best interest in mind. I felt the challenges in the district were unique to Mr. Blake’s ability as a facilities leader acting on behalf of the Board of Education,” Tao said.
Blake, who boasts not having a change order, an unexpected expense in construction, in over 20 years, vows to deliver the district’s construction on time, on budget and with no lawsuits. The last being particularly appealing to a district currently embroiled in multiple legal battles, including one regarding the placement of the Metroline.
Blake views his obligation to the district not only to construct buildings, but also to improve the education of the students that will reside in them.
“We want to turn that history [of the buildings] back around to quality education and quality facilities. So, is that part of a contract? No. Did someone say if I could do that? No. But I just want to help in that process too,” Blake said. “The building part is almost the easiest part. It’s the leadership that’s harder. But it can be done.”
“To have a successful project, you need a confident builder, a confident owner, and a confident architectural team. We generally don’t get all three. So it’s the best business plan to address the process of design and construction.”
With its team in place and plans in the process of approval, the district is taking another new step, changing the nature of the construction
At the same Sept. 26 Board of Education meeting, the board approved the use of Lease-Leaseback contracts, a method new to the district, but that Blake, Tao and Kirk-Carter have extensive experience with.
The premise behind this method of bidding is for the district to lease the facilities at a token price to the contractor, the contractor to build the project, and later lease it back to the district.
“[Lease-Leaseback] provides a method where the location of the building is leased out to a contractor/developer who is then contractually obligated to construct improvements on the leased premises and then lease the premises back to the District,” Tao said. “The method allows the District to hire one entity that is responsible for a finished product rather than a large assembly of parts.”
An attractive feature of this approach is the Guaranteed Maximum, or G-Max, contract. In this, the district and the contractor agree on a maximum price. If the project goes over budget, the excess comes out of the contractor’s profit, not the district’s.
However, the approach has been contended in courts for its legality. Legislation passed by the California state legislature has addressed these legal concerns and altered the procedures and requirements of the method.
Vice President of the Board of Education Lisa Korbatov believes the Lease-Leaseback approach will make the district’s construction more efficient.
“I would like for the Board to get out of the way [and] give it to the experts. [The board] will look in on you guys and we’re here to give oversight and deliberation,” Korbatov said at the meeting. “I’m thrilled to do this and I appreciate you bringing this Lease-Leaseback to us.”
The district faces another challenge in its future construction plans. Last November, California voters passed Proposition 51, which allowed the state to issue $9 billion in bonds for K-12 schools to repair and renovate their facilities. Because this caused an increased demand in school construction services, prices for these services and materials have skyrocketed and DSA has a backlog of plans to review.
Though some of the district’s plans still await DSA’s greenlight, Blake would like to begin the parts that have already been approved.
“The high school building was delayed, and the DSA required a whole new drawing, so I think they’ve revised the whole drawings that will come out in the summer,” Kirk-Carter said. “But Don feels that we have enough approved drawings where we can get started… we can [get] started now.”
Not only is Blake managing the $145 hundred million left in the nearly $350 million Measure E bond approved in 2008, but he is also helping the district prepare to put another bond on the ballot in 2018. This will follow the defeat of the district’s last attempted financing of Phase 2 of its construction, Measure Y, in November.
“Mr. Blake is providing essential guidance for us in planning the completion of upgrading and rebuilding our schools, to be financed by a future bond measure,” Board of Education President Mel Spitz said.
Through his close work with the board, Blake has seen what he believes to be a genuine interest in improving the construction process.
“From my professional experience, I’d say it’s rare to see a board that says ‘We know we have problems, we’re not asking you to bring a fire hose and take all the fires out, but we want to learn. We want to understand,’” Blake said.
Korbatov is confident that the district and construction team will be able to complete this project more efficiently than before.
“Judging by what we’ve seen in [the handling of the construction at] Horace Mann, what can I say? We’ll do better. I don’t want to say more. I really feel everyone puts their best foot forward and we’re all well intentioned and wake up in the morning wanting to do a good job, so I want to say positive things,” Korbatov said. “But I just know that we can do better.”