Crews spiffed up the streets near St. Paul’s Humboldt High School last week in preparation for an open-house event, and the drive was nice and smooth.
But work continues on the school itself — a multiyear project with a hefty price tag that has contributed to delays in improvements elsewhere in the state’s second largest district.
The district has put on hold pre-design work on five projects as it awaits the outcome of an outside review of the district’s facilities-management practices. Cedrick Baker, the district’s chief of staff, said “learn, adjust and continue” is the approach now to a long-range plan that officials hope becomes clearer after the review team delivers its report in October.
In May, Superintendent Joe Gothard ordered the external review after a first of wave of projects under a five-year, $484 million facilities plan came in tens of millions of dollars higher than originally projected.
A year ago at this time, in fact, crews were scrambling to get six schools in shape for the opening of the 2018-19 school year.
“We are a little more calm this summer,” Jackie Turner, the district’s chief operations officer, told school board members during a back-to-school report in August.
Significant work continues at Humboldt and Como Park high schools, both of which have seen costs blow past early estimates by $16 million and $13 million, respectively. The Como Park project is expected to be completed in December and the Humboldt work in August 2020.
Baker is overseeing a six-person review team that includes two people — Kelly Smith, of the Baker Tilly consulting and accounting firm, and Steve Torgrimson, formerly of Minneapolis Public Schools — who have previous consulting ties to the district.
Joe Nathan, who served recently on a district budget advisory committee, has recommended, in turn, that the district add more “independent members” to the review team’s ranks.
He asked for and received from state Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker the name of a person from her department who could serve on the team.
Nathan also shared with the board in August a letter from City Council Member Jane Prince asking that Gothard and the board consider adding Marie Schrul, the district’s chief financial officer; Jose Cervantes, a former district assistant facilities director who is a constituent of Prince’s; and “perhaps someone nationally recognized in school construction management,” Prince wrote.
Board Member John Brodrick also had asked district leaders before delivery of Prince’s letter whether they were interested in expanding the review team.
Baker and Gothard expressed confidence in the group then, and stood firm on the team’s makeup again last week.
“We are comfortable that the depth and breadth of the current members of the external review team bring the needed background, expertise and critical thinking needed to ensure the process and results are thorough, relevant and actionable,” Kevin Burns, the district’s communications director, wrote in an e-mail Thursday.
In addition to Baker, Smith and Torgrimson, the team includes:
Don Mullin, executive secretary of the St. Paul Building Construction and Trades Council, who also is a White Bear Lake school board member.
Mike Vogel, retired assistant to the superintendent for operations in the South Washington County School District, who helped guide the planning and construction of East Ridge High in Woodbury and the new Oltman Middle School in Cottage Grove.
Chappell Jordan, of the civil engineering firm Jacobs, based in Dallas.
In an FAQ posted on the district’s website, the district acknowledged that its initial budget model fell short of providing accurate estimates for makeovers of buildings as old as 129 years. A course correction was made seven months into the first year of work, the FAQ states, and since then “actual construction costs have fluctuated from the original bids by only 5.52% (current as of February 2019), which is well within the industry standard.”
The district has contracted with the Jacobs firm for a detailed study that includes a review of market conditions, a forensic analysis of key projects and a review of budgeted vs. actual costs. Jacobs will submit a written report and is to be paid $157,514, according to the consultant agreement.