Builders Are Fired By D.C. Schools

By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

In a show of force on his first official day on the job, D.C. school construction czar Allen Y. Lew announced yesterday he was firing the contractors on a $33 million Northwest Washington school renovation and pledged that other underperforming companies could face a similar fate.

Students at Hardy Middle School in Georgetown have been ferried by bus to the old Hamilton Junior High School in Northeast, near Gallaudet University, while contractors have worked on a total renovation that they started in 2005 and originally were to complete this December. But Lew said "poor coordination" between the school system, the architect and the contractors put the project up to a year behind schedule and $12 million over budget. The project was a joint venture of Arrow Construction Co. and W.M. Schlosser Co. The Temple Group was the project manager.

"The message we're looking to send to the construction community . . . is that it's no longer business as usual," said Lew, wearing a suit and dress shoes and standing in the copper-colored dirt of the Wisconsin Avenue construction site. He was flanked by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

"If you fail, we're going to terminate you," Lew said. He has been on the job since June but officially became executive director of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization yesterday, the first day of the fiscal year.

The action against the contractors comes as Lew's office released a report showing that 12 of 18 construction projects slated for this year and next are behind schedule. At Randle Highlands Elementary in Southeast, for example, work that was supposed to be done in 2003 is now estimated to be complete in August 2008. The project, which involved demolition and new construction, ran into funding problems when it was managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which used to build all school buildings for the District.

The replacement of the contractors, who were notified by letter yesterday that they were "terminated for convenience," echoes the tough talk by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who has spoken of firing employees in the school administration office for poor job performance. The mayor said yesterday that legislation giving the chancellor expanded personnel authority was in the "final stages of being drafted."

Mike Darling, senior project manager for the joint venture at Hardy Middle, said after the news conference that the company was being blamed for problems that it had no control over. For example, he said, architect's drawings were often incomplete, leading to unforeseen problems when workers tore into walls, and the District also failed to secure needed construction permits.

"They're spreading a lot of blame around, that's for sure," Darling said. When asked if the companies deserved to be fired, he replied: "It's not my decision."

Although new contractors have not yet been chosen, Lew said the estimated completion date for the Hardy school work is next August.

"We are very eager to get back to a schoolthat is a completely modern facility, where teaching and learning can take place with the right equipment," said Patrick Pope, principal of Hardy Middle School. "I hear there's something called central air conditioning," he quipped.

Created by legislation giving the mayor control of the schools, the facilities office will manage the $2.3 billion school construction plan. Lew also wants to take over the school system's $33 million maintenance department, a request that will require approval from the D.C. Council.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company