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Building contracts give schools more control

The contracts allow the school district to inspect ongoing work and ask that problems be fixed before the construction manager is paid.

When masons were beginning their work on the new Chasco Elementary School last year, Pasco County school officials didn't like what they saw. The subcontractor's cement blocks were rough and uneven on one side, and the district wanted higher-quality block for a smoother, more professional look.

In a typical project, the district would have had a difficult time forcing the change, but under a new kind of construction contract negotiated by the school district, Beers, the project's construction manager, halted work on the walls.

The new type of contract allows a team of school officials and Beers representatives to inspect the work of subcontractors before the project is complete. If the team deems the work substandard, it can demand the work be done again, and Beers forfeits some of its management fees.

Both the district and Beers say the new contracts, which may be the first of their kind in Florida school construction, result in better-built schools at roughly the same cost of a traditional project. The contracts force the project manager to be vigilant and follow through on district demands or risk losing a substantial portion of its fees, district and Beers' officials say.

"It's an ongoing quality-control device," said Ken Trufant, the district administrator overseeing new construction. "We don't want normal quality-control issues hanging around until the end of the project."

At Chasco Elementary in New Port Richey, Beers brought five block makers and their products to the job site, inspected each and picked a new type of block that met the district's expectations. The change and subsequent delay cost Beers $11,000 in lost fees.

Frank Fralick, a group president with Beers, said the new contracts seem to work well for his company, too, even though Beers risked losing 25 percent of its estimated $250,000 in fees if it couldn't meet district's expectations on the new school. Beers agreed to put 75 percent of its $500,000 in fees at risk on Centennial Middle school, an $11.2-million facility going up in Dade City.

Beers received its payment in monthly installments of $11,000. The inspection team would head to the job site when a portion of the project was complete enough that Beers submitted a payment request for the work. If the team found the quality of the work substandard, the district could have withheld some or all of Beers' monthly fee payment until the problem was fixed. The team has the power to decide how much of a penalty to assess.

The contracts "prove that you're willing to go the extra mile to deliver, that you're willing to earn your fee," Beers' Group President Frank Fralick said during a tour of Chasco Elementary.

Fralick said putting some of his fees on the line is worth the benefits the contract brings. With a team of inspectors monitoring work, it's easier for Beers to demand that subcontractors do the job right the first time. That ensures that the district won't face the hassle of trying to get a subcontractor back on the job to redo work for which they've already been paid.

"It really moves the jobs along more quickly, and that means more money for everybody," Fralick said.

Trufant, who used quality-control contracts when he was the district's purchasing agent, adapted the idea to construction contracts. He and Fralick both said they know of no other district in Florida using this type of contract for building schools.

So far, only Chasco Elementary has been completed under the new quality-control contracts, although Chasco's neighboring middle school and Centennial Middle still are under construction. Trufant said with the school district continuing to build schools at a rapid clip, he expects the contracts to become the norm.

It's unclear whether the contracts cost the district more money. It's hard to compare the cost of Chasco Elementary with other schools because its construction contract was coupled with one for a neighboring middle school, so comparing it to a traditional construction project doesn't quite work.

The new contracts do cost a little more for the added manpower Beers puts on site to monitor the work of its subcontractors.

The district and Beers did agree to slightly higher fees on the Chasco project, compared with a recently signed deal to build a new elementary school under a traditional contract with a different contractor. That contractor, H.C. Beck, recently agreed to build an $8.15-million elementary school for a 3 percent fee. Beers' fee on Centennial Middle School was 4.6 percent, Trufant said.

But even with those added expenses, both Chasco elementary and middle schools will still cost $1,000 per student less than the average cost of new elementary and middle schools statewide.

Trufant said he began searching for a way to demand quality control during the construction of Wesley Chapel High School. For example, the subcontractor who installed the school's covered walkways installed the roofs upside down. It took nearly a year to get the contractor back out to the school to fix the problem, he said. The district is also still arguing with the projects contractor to get some shoddy masonry work fixed, he said.

"I got to thinking that there ought to be a hammer that we can hold over these guys," Trufant said. "If they do a lousy job managing a project, they ought to get dinged."

_ Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6241. His e-mail address is kfischersptimes.com.

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