Riding herd on Fort Worth school bond program

Students and parents leave after classes at Washington Heights Elementary School.
Students and parents leave after classes at Washington Heights Elementary School. Star-Telegram

Fort Worth school board members are right: It’s high time they (and district residents) had a comprehensive report on the impact of cost increases in the $490 million bond program approved by voters in 2013.

Construction costs have escalated, and the scope of many projects favored by voters will have to be cut back — we get that.

But we’ve known that for at least four months. In September, a construction manager for AECOM Inc., the Los Angeles-based company that’s overseeing the bond projects, briefed a review committee of parent volunteers and community members about cost increases.

About the same time, bids for reconstruction of Washington Heights Elementary, one of the bond projects, came in at around $12.5 million instead of the expected $10 million.

That’s when AECOM and district administrators started scrambling to understand the potential impact on all the bond projects.

Last month, review committee Chairman Isaac Manning asked school officials to develop an “at risk” analysis of the bond projects to tie down how many of them can be expected to run over-budget.

The result wasn’t pretty. Projects worth more than $100 million are at risk of overruns of up to 40 percent, Star-Telegram writer Yamil Berard reported.

Getting a comprehensive feel for potential changes in a $490 million (before cost escalation) program takes time. We get that, too.

Some increased costs don’t show up until deep into the design phase or, particularly in renovations, after the work starts. Sometimes you don’t know what’s behind or inside a wall until you tear it down.

Still, it’s time to get a good idea of where this is all headed.

“We should be damn close to a comprehensive report,” trustee Matthew Avila said at Tuesday’s night’s board meeting. “We need to … get it done.”

Six of the nine trustees complained about not having the report already in their hands.

It’s hard not to get that message, so AECOM should respond soon.

The company also supervised the district’s 2007 bond program, a $593.6 million endeavor, and brought it in on time and under budget.

Clearly, construction costs were not escalating as much then as they are now.

Finally, although frustration is understandable, trustees went too far in heaping blame on AECOM.

The district paid AECOM $2.5 million to develop the original cost estimates for the 2013 bond projects, but that was almost two years ago when recession still ruled the construction industry.

Even if the company should have more accurately predicted costs before the 2013 vote, that’s not the reason for delay in getting a comprehensive update to account for known construction cost escalation.

In the end, AECOM is a contractor. It’s up to district administrators to closely manage the work of contractors.

Without a strong trail boss, the herd will go astray.