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Princeton school board hires same construction management firm that was used for the 2001 bond referendum projects

Resident Mark Freda addresses the Princeton school board Tuesday night.

In spite of concerns expressed by some residents and school board members, the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education voted Tuesday night to hire the same construction management firm the district used for the 2001 bond referendum projects.

Epic Management will oversee the implementation of the construction projects that were funded by the $27 million bond referendum voters approved last December. The referendum includes funding to fix flooding in the high school building — a problem that was created during construction funded by the 2001 bond referendum.

Board members Daniel Dart and Debbie Bronfeld voted no on hiring Epic, and board member Bill Hare abstained.

Dart cited reported problems with cost overruns, engineering problems, flooding at Princeton High School, and lawsuits related to the $81.3 million referendum, questioning whether the same management firm from the 2001 referendum was the right company to choose now. He read a quote from a 2008 letter by former superintendents Judy Wilson, who said there were problems with the 2001 referendum from the beginning. He said all of the problems that occurred at the beginning of the projects snowballed. Bid documents were wrong, construction was wrong, and there were lots of change orders.

“Your involvement in the prior referendum, which had so many problems, is disqualifying for me,” Dart said.

He also questioned why the firm’s $44,200 bid for the pre-construction phase of the referendum projects was the lowest bid by a significant amount. He said Epic’s bid was lower than one firm by 50 percent, and lower than another firm’s bid by 100 percent. School districts in New Jersey are not required to hire the lowest bidders for professional service contractors like construction managers or lawyers, but they are required to choose the lowest bidders when it comes to contractors or trash haulers, for example.

“Normally I love low bids as a finance person, but in this particular case we are required to hire the lowest construction contractor, so we want the best construction manager money can buy,” Dart said, questioning whether the firm was simply underbidding or would not devote enough time to the Princeton projects. “I’m really looking for someone who can dedicate more time to that front portion of things,” Dart said, quoting from Ben Franklin that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Dart also questioned the selection process. The four firms that applied to be hired as the construction project manager for the district were interviewed in closed session instead of public session, and residents had no input in the selection.

“I’m for transparency, openness, and community involvement,” Dart said. “I had asked that this evaluation — partly because of the skills in our community — be done in open session. It was done in closed session. So we did not have the input of the community. The community is paying for the $27 million and I thought they should play a role in how it was spent.”

“Your involvement in the prior referendum, which had so many problems, is disqualifying for me,” School board member Daniel Dart said.

Joel Lizotte, senior vice president of Epic, said he couldn’t undo the past and said things would go more smoothly this time around because the team has 18 more years of experience and is working with a different architect this time.

“That was a long time ago and I think, just looking forward, without getting into the weeds and details, there were a lot of things we could talk about that may or may not be accurate,” Lizotte said of the 2001 referendum construction projects. “At the time, we worked with an architectural firm that, while very famous and very large and very sophisticated, was not K-12 architects, and so there was a lot of back and forth to try to make a non K-12 architect into one. “

Lizotte said the district’s current architect, the Spiezle Architecture Group, is a K-12 architecture firm his team has worked closely with for many years. “Our experience with Spiezle is dramatically different,” he said. “We fully expect that will remain the case. When we have opinions and recommendations, someone is going to listen to them, in contrast to things that may have occurred. “

He said he is happy that the district will be saving money because of his firm’s low bid, but said the district will not be shortchanged on services. “We are really good at what we do,” he said, adding that the firm as worked for 133 school districts.

School board member Greg Stankiewicz said the former superintendent was upfront about the problems with the 2001 project, but wrote about the problems in the context of a letter of recommendation for Epic, praising the firm. Stankiewicz also said there were only problems at the high school related to the 2001 referendum and no other schools. “It’s a reliable, trustworthy firm,” he said, adding that two of the three school district employees who worked with Epic for the $81.3 million referendum still work for the district, and have recommended the firm.

School board member Brian McDonald said all four firms were highly qualified, but Epic was the best of the four. “Epic was the one with the most experience. If I’m getting a medical procedure, I like the fact that I’m going to someone who does something often, and is trusted. The word of mouth is so positive that they get all of that business. I’m also comforted by the fact that they are the most experienced firm working in this town by far. Having worked at the university for a decade — and I’ll say more about that in a moment — means they are familiar with our town staff — the engineers, the planners, even the police. That is very important to have a smooth project.”

McDonald said he liked the firm’s focus on technology and communication, and the fact that they brought the largest number of people to the interview with the board committee.

“I do think we are getting the best construction manager money can buy. They were the best prepared for the presentation,” he said. “I was particularly pleased that they are held in such high regard by the university.”

McDonald said he served five years on the university’s facilities planning group that oversaw new construction and renovation projects, and the university is very rigorous when it comes to construction projects. Epic has been used for multiple projects, he said.

“It’s great that two members of the team live here and one daughter is a proud Princeton High grad,” McDonald said. “That makes them even more accountable than they otherwise would be.”

McDonald added that the board should “respect the judgement of the superintendent and the superintendent’s team” and that it was their unanimous recommendation to hire Epic. Editor’s note: Two of three people making the recommendations are retiring. School business administrator Stephanie Kennedy’s last day is Thursday. The board approved facilities director Gary Weisman’s retirement Tuesday night.

Bronfeld said the school district can’t be compared with Princeton University. The university has lots of resources, money, and staff to oversee things. “If they dig a hole and decide they want it moved, they will move it.” she said. The school district’s funds are limited, and a set amount was approved for the district’s construction projects.

“I’m really curious about what the other firms didn’t have,” Bronfeld said. Board member Michele Tuck-Ponder said she wasn’t comfortable with that question. Bronfeld said as a board member she asked repeatedly in emails and never got an answer. “I don’t know where to get it,” she said, adding that it was hard to make a decision without more information.

Board member Jessica Deutsch said as a member of the board it is her job to trust the work of the committee to make a decision.

Stankiewicz said the session where the board committee interviewed the firms was a closed session and only limited information could be shared. It had to be closed so the committee could negotiate contract issues, he said. “We were advised by our construction counsel that a public session was something that wasn’t normally done, and we would be hurting our flexibility going forward,” he said. “All four firms were very good. It was not a question of what was wrong. The majority of the evaluation committee felt our task was to recommend to the full board who we thought was the best.”

School board president Beth Behrend said it was her fiduciary responsibility to pick the best firm now. “Coming in, my preconception was it was much easier not to pick Epic when I realized they were involved in the last job. It would be optically difficult. But then we heard the four presentations, and there was no question they were the best.”

During public comment, a few residents with extensive experience in construction management recommended that the school board proceed with caution when hiring a construction management firm. They also recommended that the board hire or designate an owner’s representative.

“We need to learn from the past,” resident Mark Freda said. “The problems in the 2001 referendum were more than just at the high school. There were significant problems at all the other schools. A child at Community Park went to the hospital because of a reaction to vapors from adhesive for water proofing. “

Freda said there were similar problems in all the elementary schools.

“I think at some point, Epic turned things around, but their initial problems were significant. Being familiar with this field, the problems were inexcusable and they placed the school board at a tremendous risk of liability, and endangered the health of students,” Freda said. “Only the public uproar created by those lapses caused them to turn things around. Maybe they are better today — I don’t know — but it is important that you all walk into this fully aware that there were serious problems.”

Freda said he is also concerned about the overall process. The district shouldn’t just rely on a construction manager, and should have a staff person looking out for the best interests of the district.

“Relying on the construction manager to be the eyes and ears for the district is not the best thing,” Freda said. “You need someone from the school system to be with them every day who has long-term experience, breadth and knowledge of the district. Without that kind of person on the team, you are going to have problems between the construction manager and architect. Who will step in and correct those or make sure things go the right way? Your process might be flawed. You need to pay more attention to that. Hopefully there will be more more community involvement. A lot of people are willing to help.”

Freda also said the board shouldn’t rush to start the projects in June.

“If it is just not going to happen, don’t rush it,” he said. The biggest mistake is rushing things. If you don’t have a schedule and preparation work done, wait. Ten years from now, no one will remember when you started the project, but they will remember how well it went. “

The school board ran out of money and time when implementing the 2001 referendum, Freda said. “The school board then stole money from the maintenance budget for years…Let’s not repeat those mistakes,” he said.

“We need to learn from the past,” resident Mark Freda said. “The problems in the 2001 referendum were more than just at the high school. There were significant problems at all the other schools. A child at Community Park went to the hospital because of a reaction to vapors from adhesive for water proofing,” resident Mark Freda said.

Resident Tara Oakman said she totally trusts the school board’s judgement, and that parents think their kids will be coming back to air conditioning in the fall. “I trust you to make an expeditious decision and then move on,” she said. ”

Resident Kip Cherry said she was concerned that the district is expecting more from the construction manager than the role can deliver, and said she would recommend against choosing Epic because of the history with the previous referendum. “The quality and specs were unacceptable. They failed to take action. They should have expressed concerns about the specs and should have sounded alarms,” she said. “There were so many change orders. Things got out of control. Now going back to the same construction manager really boggles my mind.”

Cherry said the cost overruns were almost $7 million. A contractor sued because of project delays and the school district had to pay out $4.6 million, she said. The district then sued the architecture firm, Hillier Architecture.

“I’m concerned we are heading down the same road we went down before,” Cherry said. “You need to bring in an owner’s representative and choose a construction manager that does not have the record Epic had with the previous referendum.”

Stankiewicz said the only issues that were litigated were issues related to the high school. He said the project delays were due to the architect at the time. He said the general contractor settlement was for $4.6 million — $3 million of the settlement was paid from the state development fund, and $1.6 million was paid by the district over five years, he said. The district received a $1.45 million settlement from Hillier and received $250,000 from a settlement with engineers.

Resident Surinder Sharma also urged the board to designate an in-house project manager or owner’s representative. Princeton University has staff members who play that role for their projects. “That’s the person who will make the projects successful. He will be responsible to the public,” he said. “We don’t have that right now. I don’t see that person.”

Science teacher Paula Jakowlew recalled what a mess the high school construction project was. Teachers saw problems with blueprints. They pointed things out, but there was a problem with communication and their feedback never went anywhere, she said. “Whatever you guys decide, there needs to be seamless communication,” she said, adding that people who are actually going to live in the classrooms should have a “seat at the table.”

Resident Peter Madison, a former planning board member who worked for the New Jersey School Redevelopment Authority for five years as an owner’s representative for the agency, overseeing construction projects, also said an owner’s representative is needed.

“You may think the architect and construction manager are going to represent the school district’s interest. From my experience, all the other parties involved will act to minimize their exposure — not yours — to a claim,” he said.

He recommended several measures the school board should adopt to protect the district and hold others accountable, including a thorough plan and spec review by the architect and construction management firm before bid documents are issued. Both parties should be required to confirm their reviews and be financially responsible for errors in bid documents, he said.

“You are at 10 o’clock right now. You are very late in the process if you expect to commence work June 20,” Madison said. “Rushing the process will result in mistakes. You need to determine which work can be done during the school year and concentrate on those projects. You will not be able to start June 20 and be finished by Sept. 1. Any work that has to be done over recess is not going to be done this year. It’s too late. You need to plan for 2020.”

A breakdown of the Epic firm’s bid for the Princeton Public Schools:

Pre-construction phase

$ 44,200

Construction phase

Site Manager 1: $ 18,950 per month.

Site Manager 2, as needed and as mutually approved to be utilized: $14, 495 per month

Closeout Phase

“Not to Exceed” Monthly All Inclusive Fee Site Manager 1: $ 21,775.
Blended Hourly Rate: $138.35

Please share your thoughts on this story.

6 comments
  • The problem with McDonald’s reasoning is that Epic may very well be responsive and accountable to Princeton U. as they have many ongoing projects and Epic wants to receive future contracts. The PPS contract is much smaller and these contracts only come around every 20 years. There’s no reason that they have to do a good job on the PPS contract.

    I would have hoped that PPS built in strict controls to ensure Epic wouldn’t fail us again, but the lack of detail here suggests that no safeguards exist. What a disaster waiting to happen!

  • Something is really wrong here. What does Brian McDonalds personal views of the daughter of one of Epics leaders do to justify hiring in a closed door, secretive session a firm such as Epic? Why is all the info discussed behind closed doors? If in the future a child is sent to the hospital bc of these types of decisions as happened this past at Community Park – when a child was sent to the hospital for lack of mold remediation -even though the BOE has maxed out its spends…
    It is interesting that Hillier owns the Town Topics and himself also had to pay back the BOE fo bad work .. is this why the Town Topics goes into so little detail for example in explaining why money was shopped to one of 7 offerors of bonds?

    McDonald said he served five years on the university’s facilities planning group that oversaw new construction and renovation projects, and the university is very rigorous when it comes to construction projects. Epic has been used for multiple projects, he said.
    “It’s great that two members of the team live here and one daughter is a proud Princeton High grad,” McDonald said. “That makes them even more accountable than they otherwise would be.”

    Why didn’t McDonald recuse himself from the vote? He has clear conflicts of interests here. Why is Princeton University’s approval relevant in this discussion… why would the town need Princeton U’s approval when they don’t pay their fair share of taxes? Why would Princeton U be weighing in on a decision that the Princeton Public Schools are making? They do not even pay taxes to properly fund said school budget…

  • Congratulations and many thanks to Peter Madison, Kip Cherry, Mark Freda, Daniel Dart, Deb Bronfeld, and Bill Hare for their questions, thoughts, and personal commitment. Until the BoE realizes, and recognizes, the value of directly addressing community concerns by open discussion and free release of relevant information, it will be found lacking. PPS may teach critical thinking — but clearly not for voters.

  • This is surprising given all the problems with Epic the last time around. Would the board members who voted yes to Epic rehire a contractor they had used for a home project wherein the contractor performed unsatisfactory? I don’t believe so. Mr. Dart’s comments “Dart cited reported problems with cost overruns, engineering problems, flooding at Princeton High School, and lawsuits related to the $81.3 million referendum, questioning whether the same management firm from the 2001 referendum was the right company to choose now. He read a quote from a 2008 letter by former superintendents Judy Wilson, who said there were problems with the 2001 referendum from the beginning. He said all of the problems that occurred at the beginning of the projects snowballed. Bid documents were wrong, construction was wrong, and there were lots of change orders” I’m hard pressed to appreciate or understand the ‘second chance’ sentiment. Having the University’s “seal of approval” means little … the taxpayers have been burnt once and once is enough for me.

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