By Ron Leir
The general contractor hired to do a $37 million retrofit of Kearny High School says it’s not his fault that the job is mired in seemingly unending delays.
Michael Dassati, head of the Totowa construction firm Brockwell & Carrington, said: “Right from the first months on the job, the Board of Education had us handcuffed in every direction,” to the point where it became virtually impossible to get anything done.
B&C and the BOE ended up parting ways March 20 when the BOE voted for a “termination for convenience,” giving no reason for ending its contract with B&C but permitting the contractor to recover his losses through a negotiated settlement.
Dassati said his firm was contracted for two separate jobs. He said the first – soundproofing the high school’s windows and restoration of 80,000 square feet of exterior masonry, brickwork and façade – was achieved but it was the second – renovation of 200,000 square feet of space across two buildings on five floors (including asbestos and lead abatement, demolition, roofing, replacement of mechanical systems and new electrical service) and construction of a 30,000 square foot, six-story addition within the existing building’s courtyard) – that turned into a nightmare.
What made the second job more complicated was that B&C had to do much of the work while the school was still occupied by students and staff.
Now, with less than 20% of the job completed, as estimated by Schools Superintendent Frank Ferraro, all work has ceased as the district gets ready to rebid what remains of the job. It will act as general contractor, with oversight by Epic, its construction management firm.
Dassati took strong exception to BOE President Bernadette McDonald’s assertion that B&C left “a mess” in its wake. “That’s inaccurate,” he said. “If anything, we did far above and beyond what we should have been doing. If we didn’t do our job, we would’ve been terminated with cause but we weren’t.”
About four years ago, Dassati said, his company was hired by the BOE to successfully handle a $2.5 million exterior masonry restoration job ay one of the district’s elementary schools. “We had zero problems,” he said.
Not so at Kearny High, according to Dassati.
Pulling out several boxes of several inch-thick binders, Dassati showed The Observer hundreds of pages of requests for information e-mailed to BOE representatives on various aspects of the project – many dealing with the same issues, over and over again.
BOE supervisors seemed to dodge giving answers, he said, and that contributed to work delays.
The Observer made a request to the district under the Open Public Records Act to see correspondence between the BOE and B&C but it was rejected because of what BOE officials characterized as anticipated litigation.
Dassati said B&C, as part of the regular course of doing business, gave the district a series of “submittals” – specifications for building materials and products which, typically, would be reviewed by the architect and/or engineer before ordering the items. Often, however, these submittals would be returned to B&C, marked “revise/resubmit,” with no explanation, Dassati said.
Between Oct. 2011 – when the BOE fired the original architect on the job, and Feb. 2012 – when a replacement came on board, the number of submittals continued to pile up with no action taken by the BOE, Dassati said.
As a result, Dassati said, shop drawings remained unfinished and products went wanting: doors couldn’t be cut, hardware couldn’t be ordered, etc.
“We couldn’t start with the demolition of the old pool area because [the BOE] decided they wanted to get historical designation for the wall murals,” Dassati said.
When the trailer classrooms arrived and were installed on the high school’s front lawn in December 2011, it took nine months for the town to issue the permits before they could be occupied, Dassati said.
Friction between the BOE and the town over code compliance and safety issues caused further delays, he said.
Dassati said he learned belatedly on the job that between 2004 and 2011 that the BOE had done work in various locations at the high school but never shared that information with the architect on the current project. For example, he said, fiber optic wiring had been run to the roof – where, unfortunately, new construction was targeted. Another delay.
Steel work – scheduled to be done during the summer months when the school would be empty – wasn’t done, because abatement of asbestos and lead found in walls and existing beams wasn’t addressed by the BOE, Dassati said, because the board hadn’t hired an environmental consultant to advise them how to proceed.
Processing of change orders – requests for payment for extra work caused by “unforeseen conditions” – was another area of conflict. Dassati said the BOE had agreed to approve individual change order requests for up to $50,000 without having to wait for a monthly board meeting. Still, he said, “we had 50 change orders, all under the $50,000 threshold, which they never issued, all of that holding up work.”
As examples, Dassati mentioned a $2,200 change order sought in May 2011 to abate asbestos found in floor tiles, which, B&C pointed out to the BOE, had to be done before work on the walls could begin. That order wasn’t executed until October 2011. In mid-September 2012, Dassati said, B&C discovered a “crack in a foundation wall in the basement of the South Building on the field side” and asked for $2,700 to fix that but got no response. Later, he said, “somebody bolted in a pipe” to shore up the wall.
In October 2012, B&C asked for another $2,200 change order to rebuild a second-floor concrete block wall separating the auxiliary gym from mechanical room 209 North that was “bowing out into the gym” but that order never got executed, Dassati said.
That same month, Dassati said, B&C requested a $3,700 change order to install bathroom exhaust fans. No response to that, either, he said.
Among issues still outstanding, according to B&C documents provided the BOE, are:
• Providing additional grounding and bonding of electrical service, plus emergency lighting and firesmoke dampers in the South Building. Until this work is finished, work on walls and ceilings cannot be done.
• Building code revisions require installation of sensors in “virtually every room” of the North and South Buildings and a new generator needs to be procured and installed next to the field house.
• Fire Department connections should be installed at the South Building.
• A cooling tower has yet to be approved for manufacture and now, “it may not be available for installation at the time of steel erection, which will create an additional impact for crane re-mobilization.”
• Lead paint in existing steel columns must be abated before those 35 columns can be reinforced via welding.
• The ceiling for the new cafeteria kitchen must be abated and a design for a water tie-in must be approved before new duct work and piping can be installed.
• Steel was slated to be installed this summer “but due to issues beyond the control of B&C, including … unforeseen conditions, added scope of work and design changes, this could not happen. … It is unclear if any other work can be performed this summer in the North Building….”
“All of the contractor’s concerns fell on deaf ears,” Dassati said. “The board chose to be reactionary and just let things go. We were collateral damage of infighting by the board and that’s going to roll over to the taxpayer.”