As we reported last week, the baseball and softball fields at both the South Ridge and North Woods Schools are likely to be unusable this year because they’re too wet to sustain play. It’s just the latest in a growing list of significant flaws—from contaminated water, to leaky roofs, to higher-than-expected operating costs—in the design and/or the construction of these JCI-managed school projects.
While some school officials are willing to blame a snowy April for the soggy baseball and softball fields, they need to quit making excuses for JCI’s poor execution of these projects and start demanding specific answers and solutions to this and other problems. Every other ball field in the area is playable— it’s only the ones built by JCI that are too wet to use.
This isn’t the first time that the school district has experienced problems with its athletic fields. At South Ridge, so little black dirt was spread over the football field’s gravel base that grass has refused to grow despite the best efforts of school maintenance staff. School staff has nicknamed the field “The Rock Pile” because there’s often little more than coarse gravel over much of it. Local volunteers have tried to fix the situation by bringing in more black dirt, but it’s going to take more than volunteer efforts to get the field to perform properly.
It’s not appropriate for school officials to simply shrug their shoulders at such problems, or to accept JCI’s assorted excuses for such poor performance.
If, as appears likely, JCI and its various subcontractors, failed to deliver the project they were hired to build, the school district needs to take action.
We already know the source of many of the problems. JCI officials, early on, made significant changes in the design of the schools by substituting cheaper materials in the construction and by leaving out things that were part of the original plan. JCI made many of these alterations unilaterally through the change order process, without informing the board or getting their prior approval, as was required by their contract.
Among the changes JCI made was the elimination of a drainage system for the athletic fields, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons that the baseball and softball fields are currently a soggy mess.
But that’s just one part of the problem. A well-designed and constructed athletic field should be able to dry out fairly quickly, regardless of weather. School officials need to examine the record in detail and find out whether the fields were properly designed and if that design was followed when the fields were actually constructed. South Ridge’s football field provides good evidence that other corners may have been cut when these fields were built.
JCI should have a record of the volumes of various materials that were hauled in for use on the fields— that would be standard in construction of this type. The school district should demand those records and determine whether they are consistent with the original specifications. They should also conduct some soil test boring to determine if the records match what’s actually on the ground.
This is information that the Timberjay would have requested, if we didn’t already know that our request would be ignored. It’s access to this kind of information that is currently at issue in our case against JCI, which was heard last week by the state Supreme Court.
But while JCI may feel justified in denying us access to such information, I suspect even they would balk at denying the school district such data. Doing so would raise serious red flags.
But first, school officials have to start demonstrating they are interested in due diligence. So far, they have appeared to be more concerned with protecting JCI than in demanding accountability. It’s understandable that school officials are reluctant to highlight these problems. This was a controversial facilities plan from the start, and acknowledging that the company that led them down the primrose path has failed to deliver on its promises is certainly embarrassing.
What school district officials fail to recognize, however, is that the public and their own employees in many cases are already well aware of these flaws. School officials may believe that remaining quiet about these issues is better for public relations, but the reality is exactly the opposite. When the public sees a school board that won’t stand up for the district, or for the taxpayers’ right to get what they’ve paid for, they are simply left disgusted.
There are some on the board who would like to get to the bottom of it, but they aren’t getting the cooperation they need from the board chair, or from top school administrators. That has to change. While I am more convinced than ever that JCI’s restructuring plan was a costly mistake for the school district, it’s simply too late to turn back now. At this point, they have to make the best of it, and that means ensuring that the serious design and construction flaws, particularly at South Ridge and North Woods, are addressed in a timely and effective manner. It’s up to the school board to make sure that happens.