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Massive School Building Plan Overhauled

Conflict between Santa Ana Unified staff and a management consultant prompted revamp. The pace of construction has become political fodder.

October 26, 2002|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

A massive construction plan to ease overcrowding in Santa Ana schools is being overhauled because of differences between the school district's staff and a consultant hired to manage the multimillion-dollar program.

Bill Sharp, chief facilities officer for the Santa Ana Unified School District, said Friday that his team and consultant Del Terra Construction Group are working to develop firmer budget projections and planning drafts, and improve communication.

"There are always problems with a program of this magnitude," Sharp said. "But are we doing something to change that? Yes, we are. Are we restructuring the entire program? Yes, we are."

The pace of construction for a $145-million school bond measure has become political fodder in a campaign to unseat school board members John Palacio and Nadia Maria Davis on Nov. 5, and a February election to recall a third, Nativo Lopez.

The 62,000-student district is one of the most overcrowded in the state. About 80% of the schools house more students than they were designed for.

Problems in the relationship between Del Terra and district staff were detailed in an Aug. 8 internal district memo that criticized the company for failing to provide sufficient information on construction plans and for the high turnover of people working on the project.

In the memo, obtained by The Times, the district's former director of facilities planning, Gordon Itow, recommended firing the consultant.

"In my opinion, the deficiencies of Del Terra's performance [are] clear and the district should consider severing all contracts with them," Itow wrote in the memo to supervisors. Itow left the district later that month to oversee construction at Anaheim City School District.

Del Terra president Luis Rojas defended his firm.

"We were never notified [by the district] of any performance issues at all," he said. "I stand behind my company. I stand behind my staff and its credibility and its performance."

Board president Palacio defended Del Terra and dismissed internal criticisms as sour grapes by staffers who resented outsiders taking control of the management of construction projects.

"The staff believes that it can do a better job than the professionals," he said.

Asst. Supt. Donald Stabler, Itow's former boss, said he asked Itow to summarize the district's dealings with Del Terra before departing so that he and others could refer to it for background.

Itow said in an interview that he left the Santa Ana district in part because of his frustrations with Del Terra.

Shortly after Measure C passed in 1999, Del Terra was hired to help plan and implement bond-related construction and other projects now estimated to total almost $660 million. Del Terra could receive several million dollars in compensation.

Sharp and other district officials said they are confident Measure C soon will begin to yield new classrooms. The first of the projects, expansions of four elementary schools, is scheduled to begin within a month.

District officials have blamed the slow pace of construction on the lack of undeveloped land in the city for new schools.

But in his memo, Itow also raised concerns about Del Terra's performance, including a high rate of turnover. Three Del Terra managers working with Santa Ana Unified resigned last year. Itow also said the company couldn't explain a difference of more than $100 million in budget forecasts for the construction.

Rojas said staff turnover is common in the competitive construction industry, and that district staff officials were well aware of the budget figures.

Sharp said it is not uncommon for budget forecasts to vary widely as projects progress because more information is gathered and economic conditions change. He noted that the four expansion projects slated to begin soon were budgeted at $32 million, but will cost about $24 million.

This year the district paid only $2 million of a disputed $5 million billed by Del Terra, Stabler said, because "we didn't feel the scope of the work was completed to the extent they said they had."

Rojas said differences between consultants and their clients about the amount of work completed are common, and said he is confident the matter would be resolved.

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