March 27, 2000 - From the March, 2000 issue

The Construction Management Associations Of America Speak Out On LAUSD - Army Corps Relationship

Construction managers are often seen as critically necessary for keeping projects on course, but are also often accused of overbilling or mismanagement. That contrast has been highlighted by LAUSD's accusations against 3DI-O'Brien. TPR was pleased to speak with Construction Management Association head Bruce D'Agostino about the proper role of the Army Corps, and why he feels private construction managers can do a better job than that vaunted agency.

Bruce, let's start by asking you to give our readers a sense of your organization: Who comprises your membership, what are your mission and goals, and what are your current priorities?

The Construction Management Association of America is a 17-year old industry organization-really a cross between a trade association and a professional society. We're predominantly firm-driven, but we do have individual members who are quite active.

Our mission is to promote professionalism and excellence in the management of the construction process. Although our members get involved in small projects, they excel with the more complex large infrastructure projects.

Your organization has been critical of the decision to bring in the Army Corps of Engineers to help design and build LAUSD schools. Why don't you outline your objections to that proposal?

We are certainly against the Corps' involvement in L.A. Unified-this is part of a national effort by the Corps of Engineers to market their services to large school districts. They've been marketing their services in Detroit and Dallas, and they're currently working on renovations and new schools in Washington, DC.

The Corps is using the "Intergovernmental Act" to provide program management services to other governmental bodies. But it's unlawful to provide those services when they can be provided reasonably and quickly through ordinary business channels. The Corps came in under the guise of being invited and took jobs away from program and construction managers who were bidding on LAUSD projects. That's wrong, and it's illegal.

And if they do it in L.A., they'll do it other places. It's another instance of the Army Corps' mission creep. They're getting involved in too many things. They really need to go back and look at their core mission of supporting our military. They do an excellent job at that, and they do an excellent job of civil works. But my members have the expertise in school building.

You mostly represent private sector construction managers. The Corps threatens a sizable piece of business for your members. But the bottom line is the need to build schools for kids, and many would argue that school districts should simply hire whoever's best for the job and not get caught up in public/private sector distinctions. Would private sector construction managers do a better job at this task than the Corps?

Absolutely. Many of my member firms do only schools. They understand the complexities of major school projects-not only dealing with school boards, but also difficult scheduling involved when students have to go to class while construction is completed.

I don't know of any public sector organization with the necessary skill sets to do large school projects, including the Army Corps.

One argument in favor of bringing in the Corps is the sheer scale of the job, which many say is the Corps' specialty. How do you respond to the argument that it's wise to bring in one organization with the capacity to handle it alone?

That's why you hire program managers. Large school districts need one program manager with a series of project managers handling pieces of the pie. Though L.A.'s very political, it's not that different from other large districts who have done exactly that.

Let's turn to Belmont. Your organization would not have recommended Belmont's completion. But some people on the technical side here say that the main problem with Belmont was political, that mitigation is possible and not much more difficult than many other mitigation projects around the Basin. Do you disagree with that assessment?

I can't give a professional opinion on that. But some of my members placed bids on Belmont, and those bids ended up being too high because they factored in remediation concerns. The organization that did receive the bid didn't take mitigation into account-and now you have these problems.

From a technical standpoint, the problem should be fixable, but I don't know if it's economically feasible now-you could have mitigated it earlier in the process, but so much money has already been spent.

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Many people in L.A. and the nation have been working to return schools to the centers of communities, involving community members in everything from choosing sites to school design. Also, many want to increase opportunities for joint-use with other community facilities, like libraries and parks. How do your member construction managers help foster community level input versus the command and control style?

First, we have a School Sector Taskforce, and we met with Secretary Riley last year about his "schools as centers of community" concept.

The AARP is firmly behind this concept as well. They see their tax dollars being put to maximum use on facilities that are used more than six hours a day. They're very strong proponents of continuing education and joint-use of parks and libraries.

And that's where our members excel. School districts will often hire our members because they don't have the expertise to deal with community objections or interest in new school construction. Using an objective professional construction manager helps school boards and superintendents walk through the planning process while involving the community so they understand the design and how the school will affect their neighborhood. That really brings community support and ensures community satisfaction.

Just to press you a bit, it sounds like you just said your members help the community understand the decisions. But some want the community to help make those decisions.

I stand corrected. Our members bring in focus groups and make sure all aspects of the community are represented in decision-making. They also make sure that the community is represented during construction, that minority- and female-owned businesses are involved, and that local contractors have a fair chance of getting work.

In January's TPR, the L.A. Mayor's Primary Centers Taskforce Chair O'Malley Miller said, "The School District could enter into design-build purchase and sale agreements with private sector developers who would-like they do for all private projects-acquire the site, design the product and build it. So the School District would be in the school purchasing business rather than the school building business." LAUSD has voted to try that on a pilot basis. What would be the benefits and/or challenges to making that arrangement work?

Well, doing that neglects the School District's need for uniformity, community involvement and close control. It becomes a turnkey project so you have a harder time making sure the community is involved and that minority-owned, female-owned companies are involved. Plus, there's the prevailing wage issue. And it takes the construction manager right out of that process, so I'm obviously not in favor of it.

Many areas of the country are trying this concept with charter schools. But they have a specific audience who is served by the design-build concept. For public schools and their communities, I think the community wants the interaction and input into what the school will look like and how it will be a part of their community. That's what concerns me.

Final question, Bruce. How do you feel your group could best help LAUSD meet its current challenges, especially given the scale involved? And how would you like to see LAUSD approach the daunting building program ahead of it?

I'm concerned about the rhetoric. I'm concerned not just about my members who work with L.A. Unified, but also about the image of program managers and construction managers generally. When a school owner openly questions the integrity of their construction managers, openly questions-through the press-whether they're getting real value for their dollars, it smacks to me of: "We've got somebody in the wings that we think can do the job cheaper. So let's say that the people we hired are too expensive and are overbilling us so that we can bring the other guys in." That concerns me because of the trust problem-and trust is crucial to any good school project.

Ray Cortines has an excellent reputation for managing large school districts, and he's trying to shore up the communication problem and get the personal issues out of the way. And I think he'll be able to do that, using both his in-house professionals and consultant professionals wisely. Under his guidance, L.A. Unified should come through this in excellent shape.

There are just too many people offering ideas and solutions. The concepts, the plans, and the schedules necessary to get these schools on track are all in place-they just need the go-ahead. And the results could be outstanding based on the experience of the people involved.

It's a wise move to try new things-LAUSD can certainly experiment with build-lease back school projects to see if there are cost efficiencies. But again, schools should be the centers of community, and that system presents the danger of taking the community right out of the decision-making process.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.