Study group meets on law to end school building oversight

Those concerned about a bill that would remove some oversight of K-12 public school construction and repair projects reiterated these concerns at a study group meeting on Tuesday. responsible for working on legislation.

An amended Bill 220, approved by the state legislature in May, will remove state oversight by the Construction Management Division (DCM) of the Alabama Department of Finance for construction projects and repairs under $ 500,000 in K-12 schools, universities and public parks. It also removes all roofing and HVAC repair and maintenance projects under the supervision of DCM.

Governor Kay Ivey sent an amended version of the bill to lawmakers ahead of its passage, delaying the impact of the K-12 Schools Act until February 1, 2022, and also set up the group of ‘study and tasked members to respond to concerns expressed during previous debates on the bill.

A letter opposing the bill was signed by the Alabama Associated General Contractors, Associated Builders and Contractors of Alabama, Subcontractors Association of Alabama, American Institute of Architects Alabama and Alabama Contractors Association.

Among those concerned is Tim Love, president of the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs and chief of the Alabaster Fire Department, who is a member of the study group.

Love told Tuesday’s meeting that there were still concerns that the removal of surveillance could lead to safety concerns for school staff, students and first responders who must enter buildings in an emergency.

Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, asked the group to consider raising the law’s $ 500,000 cap to $ 750,000 due to recent increases in the costs of building materials.

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“There can be a lot of catastrophic events associated with even a $ 25,000 capital project or school improvement,” Love said, adding that they would prefer to lower the figure to $ 500,000 but are certainly against its increase.

Representative Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, who introduced the HB 220, was elected chair of the study group at the start of the meeting. Ledbetter told APR in April that he drafted the bill after Dekalb County Superintendent of Schools, Jason Barnett, approached him to express his concerns about costly and time-consuming construction projects.

Barnett, speaking to APR in April, was hesitant to explain why DCM had stopped working on repairing the roof of a gymnasium, when asked if it was due to non-compliance with codes, but ultimately responded ” not to my knowledge “.

Love told APR at the time that he heard about this gym project that worried Barnett, so he called DMC to find out more, and was told it was due to code compliance. the old building.

Representative Donnie Chasteen, R-Geneva, who was elected vice-chair of the study group, told the meeting that as lawmakers they have received calls from the education community about “Problems with the Department of Construction Management, as far as cost and time.

Chasteen said a small high school had a budget of around $ 150,000 to upgrade a science lab, but after DCM reviewed the plans and recommended the changes, the cost rose to $ 350,000. .

“While they may have been blamed for taking a project from $ 100,000 to $ 350,000, they don’t,” said Heather Page, Whorton Engineering Study Group member and president-elect of the ‘American Council of Engineering Companies of Alabama. “These are the designers. We are the ones who design it. We are expected to give homeowners a realistic scope budget, and it is our responsibility to design in accordance with applicable code. “

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Allen Harris, CEO of Bailey-Harris Construction and study group member, said cost increases on school projects are often the result of an older school building that must meet changing building codes .

“Over the past 10 and 15 years, they’ve changed a lot,” Harris said of state building codes. “DCM just makes sure all of those codes are included. ”

John Montgomery, appointed by Governor Ivey to the Alabama Department of Finance study group and general counsel, said that while some school construction projects take longer than others to be reviewed by the DCM, records show the ministry has a short turnaround time for the majority.

“Over the past five years, DCM has reviewed 8,068 plans and an average of 6.43 calendar days. On average, revising DCM’s plan for code compliance takes less than a week, ”said Montgomery.

Love said his association’s biggest concern was who would be responsible for inspecting public school construction projects once DCM no longer provided such oversight.

“Counties and municipalities currently do not have the power to conduct such inspections and enforce codes, so who would enforce this code? Love asked, adding that many counties do not have construction departments.

An attorney for the committee, who was not identified at the meeting, responded that the bill did not dictate who would do these inspections, but gave the Alabama Department of Education the task of decide on those details, adding that local school boards might decide to use DCM.

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“One thing the bill does, it requires architects on site to inspect it periodically,” Ledbetter said.

The wording of the bill, however, does not oblige architects to carry out periodic inspections of the projects they themselves are paid to design. The unidentified lawyer who spoke earlier addressed this fact later.

“Again, the bill does not specifically say who would be the last party to conduct property inspections under the new regulatory regime,” the lawyer said. “It would depend on the standardized process proposed by the Department of Education, in whatever forms it provides, regardless of the checklists it gives local school boards to follow in construction projects. ”

Chuck Ledbetter, a district president with Alabama principals, told members no one wanted to cut corners on safety.

“I think I speak for all the principals in saying that is not the problem. The problem is to make sure that we do things safely and in a timely manner so that we can use taxpayer dollars the best for our students, ”said Ledbetter.

Harris said the states he and the other members of the study group looked at all had some sort of independent oversight of school building projects.

“Because we’re all human, and they know it and we know it. My people are as good as they come, and we insist on quality work… everything you do in Alabama is quality, but we make mistakes, ”said Harris. “And so, as he said, when the BCM inspectors come, it helps us. “

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Love told ARP after the meeting that he was surprised to hear the request to increase the cap from $ 500,000 to $ 750,000. This request had not been discussed among members before Tuesday’s meeting, he said.

He again expressed concern that the law does not specify who will be changed with the inspection of school construction projects to ensure code compliance.

“I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t answer this question,” Love said, adding that it shouldn’t be the same architects working on these projects, and that it should be an independent review. .

“We just want to provide security, and I don’t think we’re getting a good, solid answer on how we’re going to get there,” Love said.

The committee is scheduled to meet again on July 19 for a public hearing. The Ivey amendments require the study group to report its findings and any legislative recommendations to the leadership of Ivey, the House and the Senate by December 1, 2021.

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