A Dec. 4 Metro article incorrectly said that the proposal by D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson to raise funds for public school renovations would be taken up the following day by the full council and included a tax increase on parking. It was the Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation that approved the proposal, which does not include a parking tax increase. (Published 12/7/2005)
McKinley Technology High School sits on a hill in Northeast Washington, a $73 million campus of imposing brick and stone. But resurrecting the once crumbling and empty school cost taxpayers $21 million more than expected, making it one of the most expensive school construction projects in the city's history.
The complicated story of why McKinley went so far over budget offers a lesson during the current debate on whether the city should raise an additional $1 billion to renovate its aging schools.
The D.C. Council is scheduled to vote tomorrow on a proposal by council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) to generate the funds by imposing new taxes on parking, cigarettes and commercial real estate. The proposal has resurrected criticism of past construction efforts that have gone over budget, and some business leaders want assurances that won't happen again.
In McKinley's case, the answer involves finger-pointing in every direction, including criticism that school officials paid too little attention to the project, that the design contained errors, that the project was poorly managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and that it was plagued by unrealistic cost estimates and timetables.
When the new McKinley opened in September 2004, officials were forced to rent stage lighting for the ribbon-cutting ceremony because climbing construction costs had left no money for the lighting fixtures. A plan to buy a laptop for every student was also wiped out as costs rose.
"We are able to offer an outstanding educational environment," said Principal Daniel F. Gohl. "But if it had been well designed, it could have been done a lot cheaper."
Advocates for new funding argue that past cost overruns should not affect the upcoming vote because the construction would be under the control not of the Corps but of new managers. Among the most contentious questions are who those managers would be and whether the school system is up to the job.
Since 1998, most school construction has been managed by the Corps, which has drawn criticism from advocates and school and city officials for driving up costs. During that time, about $680 million was spent on improvement projects, including complete renovations of 12 schools.
"We paid way, way too much for them," Patterson said.
Corps officials, however, dismiss that criticism.
"Much of what is being characterized today as cost overruns were actually conscious decisions made by D.C. officials . . . to expand the scope of individual projects from what was originally contemplated," said Michael Rogers, program manager for Corps' school construction in the District.
Under Patterson's plan, a nine-member appointed advisory committee would oversee the efforts to improve the city's 147 schools. On a daily basis, the work would be managed by the school system, and officials said qualified staff members have been hired to do so. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce has proposed an alternative plan that calls for an independent entity to be in charge.
School officials say the work should be managed within the system. "It makes sense that you have educators' insight," said Thomas M. Brady, chief business operations officer for the schools.
McKinley is not the only school renovation to come in over budget -- Barnard Elementary in Northwest increased from $9 million to roughly $24 million. But the controversy over McKinley has been sufficiently troublesome to draw the attention of D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols, who said she is wrapping up an examination of why project costs climbed so high.
In 2000, when city and school officials decided to rebuild McKinley, the school had been closed for three years. Built in 1928, it had once enjoyed a strong reputation, but flagging attendance had led officials to padlock the building and send its students elsewhere.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), whose campaign had included the concept of a technology high school, chose the McKinley site, saying the school would reopen in 2002. Plans for the politically charged project were ambitious, including not just opening a renovated school, but surrounding it with a technology campus filled with businesses offering students jobs and internships.
The renovation was budgeted by school officials at $52 million and put on a fast track.
Critics said that cost estimates were unrealistic from the beginning and that design problems further drove up the price tag. Cathy Reilly, head of a parent advocacy group, noted that interior walls were ripped out so classrooms could be slightly larger.
"There was no reason for this," said Reilly, who attended planning meetings for the project. "The decision to tear out the walls -- that led us down a path from which there was no return."
City officials wanted the Corps to hire from a roster of D.C. businesses that qualified as small or disadvantaged. The agency hired McKissack & McKissack, an architecture and engineering firm that fit that classification.
"We were under huge pressure" to use D.C. firms, said David Morrow, a Corps program manager who previously supervised the city's school construction program. In hindsight, he said, without that pressure "we probably would have used a larger contractor" for the job. "But having said that, I don't know if we would have had any fewer problems."
Many agree that putting the school on a fast timetable caused problems. The Corps, for example, asked McKissack to design a new school before school officials had developed the academic program, Morrow said. "We were really shooting at a moving target."
And McKissack Executive Vice President Sam Condit said drawing designs for a school that had yet to be fully conceived was a major problem.
"Our concerns over issuing incomplete documents were expressed many times, but we were always told that the schedule was more important," Condit said in a written statement.
As a result, the Corps put the project out for construction bids when designs were far from complete. The joint venture of James G. Davis Construction Corp. and HRGM Corp. won the bid.
Shortly after construction began in 2002, the design problems became apparent, records show. Contractors soon swamped the Corps and the architects with requests that drawings be clarified, which led to changes in the design. In one change that cost $198,000, contractors were forced to replace 36,000 square feet of ceiling because McKissack's plan to remove certain walls had left it unstable, Corps construction records show.
"This change is considered attributable to designer error," the records said.
Condit said in an interview that the change was not the firm's fault and that it was unrealistic to expect that McKissack, working at a rushed pace, would be able to analyze the physical condition of the entire building before drawing the plans. He said the same was true in other cases where the Corps attributed construction change orders to design problems.
He said his firm didn't have the original McKinley blueprints to work with because they could not be found.
Corps records say that corridors were misaligned and that sinks were placed where there were no water lines, problems "considered attributable" to McKissack. In all, the Corps records attribute about half the costs of the change orders to oversights by McKissack.
Condit said "we think we did a great job" and disagreed with the Corps' assessment. Missing sink lines, for example, were due to the fact that the firm was told by the Corps to issue incomplete drawings, Condit said.
Errors by McKissack account for less than 1 percent of the construction cost, Condit said. Most of the changes were caused by unforeseen conditions "in a large building that had seen years of neglect," he said.
"The original contract price . . . was not intended to be the final budget," and many of the changes classified as omissions were "completely necessary to build this project," he said.
Taken together, the roughly $11 million in change orders drove up construction costs by more than 20 percent, far above the 5 percent the Corps budgeted for modifications on the project.
The Corps declined to comment on the change orders, saying they are only preliminary assessments of responsibility.
School board member William Lockridge (District 4), who pushed for the audit, said "somebody owes the school system money . . . because the school system should not have to pay for cost overruns caused by companies that didn't do good or complete work."
He said the Corps should have presented change orders to the school board and questioned whether the board adequately reviewed the drawings before the project was put out for construction bids.
The funding picture also was clouded by the expectation that private donors would add millions to the project. That didn't happen, and city officials abandoned plans to help develop the campus. As construction costs climbed, Corps managers and school officials slashed planned features.
A refurbished grandstand and a walkway between buildings were eliminated. Electronic presentation boards for every classroom were cut. An entire wing that was meant to be privately funded stands empty.
The lesson for future projects is to do more careful, realistic planning, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which monitors school spending and is under contract to help the system with planning.
"Where you make your expensive mistakes is not when you get to construction," she said. "It is at the beginning."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.