School Board Divided Over Renovation Approach

Last night the Clarke County School Board split over how best to handle yet another pro-bono offer to evaluate renovation options for several Clarke County education buildings. However, the “free” proposals, that vendors say will allow the school division to generate cost estimates for use in a future request for proposals to renovate the former Clarke County High School, Cooley Elementary, and Berryville Primary, may have some School Board members wondering whether “free” really means “no cost.” Issues raised during last night’s debate included delays associated with procurement fairness and resultant construction cost increases as northern Virginia’s economy continues to recover from recession.

Last night’s debate was spawned after a presentation and subsequent pro-bono offer by architectural firm Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates (CRA) to develop a design plan for addressing Clarke County’s pending school renovation project. Executives from CRA, the architectural firm responsible for the new Clarke County High School planned for dedication on Saturday, told the School Board that their firm had implemented approximately $2.7B of education building and design projects since entering the market in 1997.

Paul Taylor, CRA’s director of educational architecture, said that CRA’s design approach includes production of renovation reference documents that help the communities and School Boards get on the same page regarding renovation goals. Taylor added that the preliminary work is often done at no cost to the community.

“That’s the nature of our business,” Taylor said. “We do this kind of work quite frequently for our clients.”

Taylor and CRA executives Keith Karper and Hal Hart offered to provide a site analysis review – including safety and security, structural systems, operational systems, energy efficiency and education technology and other work – all at no cost to the school division.

CRA’s proposal comes on the heels of the School Board’s acceptance of renovation-related pro-bono proposals from two other firms – OWPR, Inc. of Blacksburg, Virginia and PHR&A of Winchester. Both firms submitted the no-cost offers at the request of School Board member and renovation committee chairman Jim Brinkmeier (Berryville).

In urging acceptance of OWPR and PHR&A’s pro-bono help, Brinkmeier argued that accepting pro-bono offers was necessary in order to get the school division’s stalled renovation process back on schedule. But last night Brinkmeier, along with School Board member Dr. Beth Leffel (Buckmarsh), opposed CRA’s new pro-bono bid on the same grounds; that it will derail the renovation schedule.

Other School Board members appeared to disagree.

“Once you open the door to one vendor you have to allow proposals from anyone else who wants to submit them,” said School Board members Barbara Lee (Millwood).

Leffel disagreed with Lee.

“We don’t have to accept CRA’s offer,” Leffel replied. “We can send CRA a letter expressing our appreciation for the offer, but we have already paid them $14K for a previous proposal and that was their shot. If they would like to give that $14K back to the school division then they can say that they did some pro-bono work for us.”

Leffel’s reference was to a $14K CRA renovation proposal commissioned and received by the previous School Board.

Brinkmeier said that he was surprised by the CRA presentation.

“We’ve already had one CRA study that they charged us for,” Brinkmeier said. “We can study this to death if we’re not careful and I am not in favor of having more studies at this point. We just don’t have the time to ‘analyze and paralyze’ ourselves with studies. It will require an additional four to six weeks for CRA to produce the additional studies. I recommend that we send CRA a thank you note for their time – but no more studies.”

However, School Board members Chip Schutte (White Post) and Chairman Janet Alger argued in favor of the additional CRA review.

“We’ve had good experience with CRA,” Schutte said. “We also have a current contractual relationship with them.”

Schutte was also skeptical about the basis for the OWPR and PHR&A mandate to assess the feasibility of combining Cooley Elementary and Berryville Primary all under a single roof at the existing high school.

“I personally can’t live with a plan that requires an addition at the old high school because it will trigger a storm water management because it will take a year to be approved,” Schutte said. “But I’m still interested to see what PHR&A has to say about it.”

“Another set of eyes on this would be helpful,” Alger agreed.

Brinkmeier at times expressed frustration during the discussion and questioned why Lee, Alger, and Schutte were willing to accept CRA’s additional review prior to seeing the results of the OWPR and PHR&A studies.

“CRA has already given us a study and an evaluation,” Brinkmeier said. “Even though you haven’t seen anything from OWPR and PHR&A you’re already deciding that you need another study. If another firm comes in tomorrow with a new offer where do you draw the line? If there are still issues after we see the facts, let’s bring CRA in then.”

“With the construction market going up it’s insane to do this,” Brinkmeier said.

“I don’t want to present the image of favoritism,” Schutte responded. “I think that we should let both come in and then weigh their ideas fairly.”

“We will have already had three sets of eyes review this and that’s enough for us to make a decision,” Leffel countered. “CRA said that they need six weeks and we don’t have that much time to wait.”

Leffel then offered a motion to reject CRA’s pro-bono offer saying that the six-week lead time needed to produce the report did not meet the School Board’s deadline. Leffel’s motion included a caveat that the School Board would consider additional input from other firms if questions remained after reviewing the OWPR or PHR&A proposals.

Leffel’s motion, which was rejected by “nay” votes from Alger, Lee, and Schutte, was followed by a motion by Schutte to allow a proposal from CRA with the understanding that the School Board intended to move forward by May 21st in order for the information to be considered.

However, as Brinkmeier responded to Schutte’s motion by repeating concerns about delays resulting from a new proposal, Chairman Alger attempted to block Brinkmeier’s statement through a point of order.

“You’ve already had two comments,” Alger said.

“What?” Brinkmeier responded. “Show me.”

“Robert’s Rules of Order,” Alger responded. “The rules that we use to govern our meeting.”

“By mid-May we will have the OWPR and PHR&A responses,” Brinkmeier continued ignoring Alger’s remonstration. “We can then do a request for qualifications by May 15. Next we need to select three of the architectural and engineering firms to interview. That can be done by May 30th. If we select a firm by June 1st we can decide then if a construction manager is needed for the project.”

Brinkmeier cautioned that 90 – 120 days of lead time will be necessary to complete the renovation design and that construction needs to start by October 1st – at the latest according to Brinkmeier – in order to achieve the hoped-for substantial completion target of June, 2013.

“We need to start by October 1st at the absolute latest,” Brinkmeier said. “A delay of even a couple of weeks is critical. We just don’t have the luxury of a whole lot of time but construction costs are still going up.”

Having listened to Brinkmeier’s concerns the School Board then voted to accept CRA’s pro-bono offer with Alger, Lee, and Schutte in favor and Brinkmeier and Leffel opposed.

The School Board renovation committee will next meet on May 14th at 6:00pm at the old Clarke County High School Library.