By Ron Leir
After more than two years of stop and start work, the Kearny High School (KHS) Noise Abatement and Exterior Renovation project has come to a grinding halt.
Last Monday, March 20, the Kearny Board of Education voted unanimously (Trustee John Leadbeater was absent) to fire the general contractor, Brockwell & Carrington (B&C) of Towaco.
The firm was “terminated for convenience,” which, according to the website Business Dictionary.com, is a “standard clause in government contracts which gives [a government entity] the right to unilaterally terminate [a] contract at any time with or without giving a reason. The contractor is generally entitled to a negotiated settlement for an equitable recovery of costs and losses incurred.”
Neither Board Counsel Kenneth Lindenfelser nor the board’s Florham Park construction attorney Gary Werner returned phone messages to talk about the board’s action.
But in a phone interview last week, Schools Superintendent Frank Ferraro said that the $37.3 million project “has transitioned into a different direction. We just needed to restructure the project because, as currently constituted, it became unaffordable.”
Ferraro said that if the project were allowed to continue on its current course, “we’d be substantially over budget.”
The work is funded by outside government sources, mostly from the Federal Aviation Administration and Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, with the balance from the N.J. Department of Education. Ferraro said he’s kept all three agencies in the loop about the board’s plans to disengage from B&C and they’ve gone along.
BOE President Bernadette McDonald said the move was made “on the recommendation of our construction counsel in conjunction with the board attorney. [The project] is a real mess…. Brockwell & Carrington didn’t do the job they needed to do…. We’re trying to salvage what we have so we don’t have to go all the way back.”
Asked about the students and teachers rotating through classroom trailers parked on the KHS front lawn, McDonald said: “They’ll have to stay. We can’t put them back in the building.” She couldn’t say how long that arrangement would continue.
Ferraro inherited the “mess” when he was appointed as the district’s chief school administrator late last year. One reason he was hired was his prior experience in guiding several large-scale school construction projects in New York State.
From now on, Ferraro said, the board will be acting as its own general contractor, with help from Epic Management, Inc., of Piscataway, previously hired as the project’s construction management firm.
Ferraro, who has quickly gotten himself up to speed on the stalled project, said that plans were initially developed back in 2004 and “between then and [start of construction in] 2010, building code changes happened, and that created a lot of change orders in the plans and that’s why things slowed up.”
Now, Ferraro said, “We’re pulling back, we’re having our engineering and architectural plans redone so when we go out to bid [for the remaining work], our subcontractors [heating, ventilating and air-conditioning, plumbing and electric, as examples] will report to the construction manager so we have tighter control over the job.
“The process of having Epic and a third party [the general contractor] had become cumbersome,” Ferraro said, “and we’ll have better control if we do it this way.”
Asked when he anticipated that bidding process to begin, Ferraro declined to give a specific date but said it would happen “pretty soon. We’re getting all the information from our architects and structural engineers.”
Now nearing the midpoint of its third year, the project is clearly behind schedule. Structural steel was due to be delivered last summer when the district had hoped to get a big portion of the work done when students and staff were away but that didn’t happen.
Ferraro estimated that, to date, “18% of the project is complete.” Asked how much had been spent, Ferraro said he didn’t know the answer. “I’m going to be proposing some things to the board to check on finances,” he said.
Could he predict how long the job would take to complete, Ferraro said: “We’re going to be putting out a timeline once we get our [bid] proposals back. I understand we’ve had timelines before and they weren’t accurate.”
When he has a more definite idea about the direction of the work, Ferraro said he’ll find a way to get the word out to the high school community. “I want to get the students’, staff’s and public’s trust back.”
To that end, Ferraro said, “Safety is our first consideration. I’ve spoken with the town’s building inspectors and our Director of Buildings and Grounds [Mark Bruscino] works with them very closely to make sure everything is up to code. We’re taking no shortcuts and we’re making sure we don’t jeopardize the safety of the people in that building.”
Ferraro said that any payments that may still be due to B&C “will be done through negotiations under a profit margin formula. The lawyers and accountants are working that out.” B&C didn’t return a phone message for comment.
Aside from soundproofing the school against the persistent noise from passing plane traffic, mostly from Liberty International Airport in Newark, whose flight paths take them over the West Hudson area, the KHS project includes the renovation of more than 200,000 square feet of space across two buildings on five floors – involving asbestos removal, demolition, roofing, windows, and new mechanical and electrical systems – plus construction of a 30,000 square foot, six-story addition within the existing building’s light court and restoration of 80,000 square feet of the school’s exterior masonry and field houses, which involves repointing and replacement of brick façade, restoration and anchoring of limestone moldings and cornices, and replacement of parapets and lintels.
The project has been fraught with obstacles, literally from the get-go when the BOE’s initial contract award to Dobko, Inc., in September 2010 was challenged by B&C and the litigation dragged on in the state appellate court until a ruling came in June 2011 awarding B&C the contract.
Then, in October 2011, the board fired the project’s New York architect, DF Gibson, eventually replacing that firm with Sen Architects of New York.
Along the way, friction arose between the district and the town as the Kearny Construction Department concluded that certain aspects of the work on the project failed to comply with revised building codes.
And now the BOE has scrapped the project’s general contractor. Asked how the latest incident was affecting morale among his students and staff, KHS Principal Al Gilson said that other than an updating of KHS staff by Ferraro and Buscino, “it hasn’t been a topic of conversation” at the school. “We’ve been moving forward, accomplishing a lot of other things at the school,” he added.