Officials with the Los Angeles-based company hired to oversee construction in the $490 million bond program approved by voters in 2013 were in the hot seat Tuesday night because of anticipated cost overruns.
Trustees Ann Sutherland, Christene Moss, Matthew Avila, Ashley Paz, Judy Needham and Tobi Jackson all said they were outraged that after months of delays, AECOM Inc. has not provided a comprehensive management report including a new construction schedule and updated costs on projects based on the current market.
“We should be damn close to a comprehensive report,” Avila said. “We need to … get it done.”
A recent analysis found that more than $100 million in projects are at “high risk” of going over budget because of anticipated overruns of up to 40 percent. The worry is that the district will run out of money before it can provide the classroom additions, school renovations and replacement campuses promised to voters.
The district has paid AECOM more than $30 million since 2007, including $2.5 million to conduct a districtwide needs assessment before the 2013 bond vote.
The analysis showed that two new replacement elementary schools, at $12 million to $18 million each, and $13 million in upgrades to field houses at every high school are expected to exceed projections by 20 to 40 percent.
Cost overruns are also expected to affect construction of the district’s two showcase academies — the Visual and Performing Arts Center and the STEM Academy for students who desire careers in math and science.
Interim Superintendent Pat Linares said she agrees with trustees’ assessment.
“You’re right, Mr. Avila, Christene, everybody,” Linares said. “The longer we wait, the longer it will take us to get something done.”
Needham acknowledged the company’s role in the 2007 bond program, which she said was completed on time and on budget, when market conditions were better.
But AECOM failed to do due diligence on the 2013 package, Needham said. It did not discuss construction details with principals, for example, Needham said.
“I want this community to know … you really let us down — the board, the community and, worst of all, we’re cheating the children,” Needham told AECOM project manager Wayne Warren.
“AECOM got paid a whole lot of money, and now you’re getting paid to help us do this thing and you don’t have a solution as far as I’ve heard.”
At one point, Needham asked, “Is this bond going to come in on time and on budget?”
Warren responded: “If we continue at the rate that we’re going right now — we’re not moving on various projects — we will not finish on time. It will also impact the budget. If market conditions continue in the same fashion that they have in the previous year, an approximate 1-percent-a-month increase in cost, we would not come in on budget.”
Paz expressed frustration.
“It’s going to be very hard for me to sacrifice something that was promised to the public,” Paz said. “To deliver less than what we have promised the people of Fort Worth over something we don’t know about without having proper planning put into this, it’s going to be a very difficult decision for me to make and it’s not something that I’m going to do lightly.”
Ricardo Salinas, a top AECOM official, acknowledged that the company missed projections.
“I understand the frustration,” Salinas said. “We’re all frustrated with the situation. When we were budgeting this, there was no way we could have seen 40 percent [escalation in construction costs]. We want what’s best for the kids just like everybody else.
“It’s a very difficult situation. There’s no doubt about it.”
Bert Williams, a member of the citizens’ advisory committee that scrutinized bond expenditures, urged trustees to become more involved in planning and implementing the bond program.
“Hopefully, we can take all the politics out of what’s going on, because we all know there’s a lot of politics going on,” Williams said. “You have the ability to do what’s right. Each one of you told the people you were there about the kids. We’re hoping that is still true and you’re still doing that.”
The district is trying to get a handle on escalating costs. Several weeks ago, Linares recommended $43 million in potential cuts and savings, including building fewer pre-kindergarten and regular classroom additions and deferring maintenance at school facilities.
Linares also recommended that the district not spend money immediately for new auditorium seating at some schools.
Vicki Burris, the district’s chief officer for capital projects administration, has said almost every project in the 2013 referendum was based on a square-footage cost far below the market value. The bond was passed on a price projection of $180 per square foot, but contractors say the work will cost at least $216 per square foot.
Also Tuesday night, the board voted 8-0 to designate $10 million to install turf at a dozen high schools.
The board’s next regular meeting is Feb. 10.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705