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New building, new rules

Early into their tour of the Renaissance Center construction project last week, School Board members were ready to have the inevitable conversation.

They had followed construction officials along the school's long, dusty main corridor, absorbing the little details of construction.

Their tour leader, construction project manager Chris Brown, led them to the start of the safe zone, an interior area designed as a hurricane shelter that could accommodate nearly 600 people. These walls were full of extra reinforcement, plenty of steel rebar and strengthening grout, he explained.

For just a second, the school officials looked around at each other waiting for someone to ask the question on everyone's mind.

"Are you sure about that?" asked board member Pat Deutschman.

"I guarantee it," Brown responded.

"I'd stake my life on it," said Dick Dolbow, the school district's building official.

It was the inside joke that no one in this group could laugh at for very long.

Back in spring 2004, the last time board members donned hard hats and took a field trip into the sugar sand and construction debris, they saw what seemed a similar sight.

Ceilings were unfinished and data lines and duct work snaked above the grids overhead. Dusty slabs without flooring and undone counters sprawled out before them as the sounds of drilling and pounding vibrated.

But it was what the members could not see when they visited the new media center and cafeteria at Homosassa Elementary School in April 2004 that would come back to haunt them.

Those school building walls lacked reinforcement. In addition, the walls were not properly tied together and were not attached properly to the roof. The flaws, which came to light through an anonymous tipster, sent the school district into a whirlwind of investigations and inquiries.

Masons and other workers on the job didn't build correctly. Oversight by professionals on the construction job was lacking. Inspections weren't done on key elements of the structure. And no one noticed. The school district's own processes did not have enough checks and balances to ensure a good project.

Public trust in the school system nose-dived and citizens clamored for change, forcing a revamping of every aspect of the way schools are built in Citrus County.

Officials say they have learned those lessons and applied them as the district has constructed its new $6.7-million school for disruptive middle and high school students at the Lecanto school complex, a building approximately 65 percent complete to date.

Because of what went so wrong in Homosassa, officials say that the Renaissance Center will set the standard for quality future school construction projects.

For a public eager to trust again, that assurance couldn't come at a better time.

Just hours after the School Board's tour of the Renaissance Center, the district received an engineer's report casting real concern about the latest flaw to appear at Homosassa Elementary: a crack in the floor slab that is growing and causing a shifting in the floor height in the cafeteria.

The school district is investigating and does not yet know how serious this latest problem may be.

New projects will be done better, officials say.

They have to be. The Citrus schools cannot afford another Homosassa debacle.

Imagine stepping into the shoes of Welbro Building Corp. of Maitland.

It is the construction management firm hired by the school district to build the new Renaissance Center, the first major school construction project A.H. - After Homosassa.

They know the district, having built the latest addition at Crystal River Middle School at the same time the Homosassa project was ongoing. Few problems were found with that job.

Dolbow, the district's building official, made it clear from the day they were hired that the expectations were very high.

"I drove it home to everyone involved that this was going to be our new standard and we all need to get used to it," he said.

Dolbow said the district also made it clear that the licensed professionals involved in the design and construction will be on the site frequently. And the district expects a high level of awareness and involvement from Welbro's superintendent and project manager on site.

Dolbow attended the preconstruction meeting.

"I sat in with the architects and the contractors, the project managers, everyone. I made sure that they were crystal clear on our inspection process," he said.

Inspection forms have been rewritten, requiring more detailed information about what an inspector observes. While Berryman & Henigar, the same firm that provided inspections for Homosassa, is also involved at Renaissance, inspections are now done only by the qualified trade-specific inspector.

There are also plenty of eyes on the district's side now watching to be sure that the required inspections are done.

Dolbow is central to that.

Since Homosassa, his job has been narrowed to just being the building official. In the past he also served as project manager, giving him little time to oversee all school district projects because he was bird-dogging his own.

Dolbow wasn't involved at Homosassa until the flaws were revealed.

Now Dolbow answers to the district's risk manager rather than the facilities director, creating another system of checks and balances. He no longer oversees the day-to-day work at a project; instead, he regularly visits all major projects, checks the paperwork at each site and writes his own field reports.

Those reports are reviewed by Mike Mullen, executive director of support services, and by Dolbow's new boss, Steve Myers.

"Dick is making sure every inspection is done on every project," Mullen said. "It's a cleaner fit and it's also a check and balance."

Dolbow also attends the weekly construction meetings. Minutes are kept.

Many of the meeting minutes of Homosassa construction meetings disappeared, including the minutes where workers were alleged to have talked early in the wall-building portion of the project about missing reinforcement.

"I'm out there enough that I have a comfort level so that I know that what needs to be done is getting done," Dolbow said.

And he isn't the only one on site regularly.

The project manager is now expected to submit regular reports to be reviewed by his boss, director of facilities and construction Alan Burcaw and by Mullen.

At Homosassa, witnesses reported that the school district's project manager, Sam DiGuglielmo, who was in poor health, would sleep on the site. He also never kept a log beyond a driving log.

Padding a log will not fly for very long when Mullen said he can review what was happening at the site on a weekly basis from multiple sources now.

"I can't imagine that a project manager could neglect to spend time on the job site," Mullen said.

At Homosassa, other than aerial photos taken periodically and snapshots of construction taken by staff and students for a scrapbook, the only other photos found to date of the construction process were taken by an anonymous source and shared with the St. Petersburg Times.

At the time, it wasn't the district's practice to pepper their file with pictures of the building process, Dolbow said.

The Renaissance Center and future projects will be far more photographed. Mullen estimates that thousands of shots have already been taken of the new school and virtually everyone in the review process has a digital camera in their back pocket.

The rebar on the site has been photographed. So have any construction problems found along the way by inspectors or Dolbow or the other overseers. The repairs were caught on film as well.

Another issue in the Homosassa project involved the fact that some of the rebar ordered for the job was delivered not to the school, but to builder R.E. Graham's property in Sumter County. "The system we've got in place is that it is to be stored on site or at a bonded warehouse," Dolbow said.

That may come into play as the district prepares to build its next elementary school in Citrus Springs. Officials fear the timing of that school may coincide with the time that much of the rebuilding work is starting up in New Orleans. That could spell supply shortages or higher costs.

District officials are considering getting some of the supplies ahead of time and they would have to be housed in a secured site, Mullen said.

"You can't risk the public's money," he said.

While the rules of the new system are more detailed, Dolbow said Welbro officials haven't raised a fuss.

"Used to be you'd rely on other people, but we've gotten out of that mode," Dolbow said.

One thing that has not changed in the process is an issue that was raised by Jimmy D. Schilling, the structural engineer from Satellite Beach who first raised the alarm when he saw the tipster's construction photos from Homosassa Elementary.

Schilling said the district should be sure to have the structural calculations on every building it owns, which is the formula used to determine that a building can stand up to strong winds. Those calculations were never provided to the district on Homosassa and firms hired to confirm the wind-load capabilities of the school have not done so to date.

Dolbow said the district doesn't need that information.

"That's why we have an engineer. . . . That's why they sign and seal" the plans.

Dolbow said the district relies on the state licensing boards to make sure that professionals such as the project's engineer, architect, inspectors and contractors know what they are doing.

School and community officials filed complaints against those licensed professionals on the Homosassa project and none of the state licensing boards to date have taken any public action on those complaints.

With all of the other changes made by the school system, officials say they are far more confident in the quality of future projects, an important sentiment since the district is planning a new elementary school and anticipates quite a bit of student growth in the coming years.

How far ahead of the old system is the new system?

"Light years comes to mind," Dolbow said.

In the Welbro construction trailer at Renaissance, the walls are covered with stacks of forms, schematics and documentation that everything that is supposed to be scrutinized has been.

On a table on one side is a stack of the drawings for the school with the initials and notations of inspectors as they have documented work completion.

For Mullen, that setting gives all the professionals involved in the job ready access to what they need to know.

One set lists inspections done by a threshold inspector, a special kind of inspector who is an engineer. Such inspections are required in projects of this size or projects that will become a shelter, like Renaissance.

That highly qualified threshold inspector is yet another set of checks to be sure that everyone has done their job. In this case, the district decided to expand that inspector's role beyond just the safe zone designed as shelter space within the Renaissance project to the entire school.

The Homosassa project was not a project large enough to require that extra added layer of protection.

"I wish it had been," Dolbow said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendt@sppimes.com.

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