Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Wednesday, January 9, 2013
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Schools talk change orders

Like leftover turkey, a meaty issue from the previous session was the main course at the School Board's first meeting of the new year.

Debate continued Tuesday over the change-order process with the ongoing Horace O'Bryant Middle School construction project, following a PowerPoint presentation and recommendations by School District lawyer Dirk Smits.

The board met at Coral Shores High School to discuss the issue at length, zeroing in on a list of such orders that has raised several board members' eyebrows.

"Everybody in the construction business knows that the money is in the change orders," board member Ed Davidson said, adding that he was "itching to revoke" one of them.

The change orders are, in essence, claims of savings realized by the Coastal Construction company over the course of the project, by way of greater efficiencies. The board must currently sign off on any such order involving more than $25,000.

If approved, the orders would result in those savings being divided between Coastal and the School District in a 40-60 split. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake.

The issue raised hackles last year when the district's Audit and Finance Committee unearthed documents it claimed would award savings to Coastal without a proper debate by the board over what constituted actual savings, and would do so months before the project was scheduled to be done.

On Tuesday, board members and Schools Superintendent Mark Porter took a closer look at specific change orders Coastal has been piling up since December 2010, and discussed Smits' recommendations.

The board will have to vote on a number of the orders.

"These things do need to be audited," Smits said, adding that some of the orders "need to be voided. They've got to come back to you to stick."

One order, No. 34, seeks an additional $400,000 from the district to compensate the company for having to fill in a crawl space found under an existing building, and to supply proper soil after a geotechnical engineer found it unacceptable to build on.

Longtime board member John Dick was especially concerned about the arrangement.

"Why didn't anybody know this before?" he asked, implying that the soil issue was being passed along to the district by Coastal, though Smits acknowledged the company hasn't been actively seeking payment.

"The soil guy was working for us," Davidson pointed out.

When it was found under one building, that "should have been a red flag to check the other buildings."

"We should have been motivated to check under the building where the real problems were," he said.

Board Chairman Andy Griffiths countered that the onus was on the district to present a build-ready area to the company.

"We were responsible for delivering a clean site," he said after the meeting. "Whether you discover before or after that you have a problem with that site, it must be addressed.

"Would knowing about it ahead of time make it cheaper? Probably not. The contractor fixed it as cheaply as they could."

Among Smits' recommendations in the PowerPoint presentation were that: "Any positive change order (notwithstanding any offset) must be brought to the board for approval," and that the monthly construction update include all change orders.

• In other news, the board voted to extend the contract, without considering competing bids, with Envisions Pharmaceutical Services to continue providing a drug plan for district employees.

Superintendent Porter vowed, however, to revisit the issue before the end of 2013, citing concerns over the "synchronization" of planning employee benefits midway through the year, when the current contract will expire.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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