Problems with the steel frame of the new addition to Audubon Charter School’s Broadway campus will require what officials are calling “selective demolition,” and could delay students’ return by as much as a full year, Orleans Parish School Board officials told families on Saturday.
“We’ve got a structural issue at the Broadway campus that’s going to impact the delivery of that school and the completion of it in the timeframe we had planned on,” said OPSB Superintendent Stan Smith. “It’s certainly unfortunate, but it’s an issue that ultimately involves the safety and security of the building.”
In late September, officials discovered that some of the steel supports around the stair towers were not level — some of the steel beams lean out several inches, so that the floors are not parallel. As they began to investigate, they realized that the problem was broader than they expected, and in fact that they could not determine the full scope of it without removing some of the brick walls that have already been built.
“We need to find out from these people what happened during erection that might have caused this,” said Chris Young of Blitch Knevel architects. “In order to do that, we’re going to have to tear down a lot of this construction to expose that steel frame to make sure that every steel beam is straight and true and not deformed.”
Complicating issues further, the contractor, F.H. Paschen, has yet to remove enough brickwork necessary to allow surveyors to see the full length of the steel beams in question, Young said. They have opened up small “peep holes,” rather than full wall lengths, officials said, and have actually continued building walls while inspectors are trying to determine the source of the steel problem.
“We kind of came to a stalemate there,” said structural engineer Don Makofksy. “We haven’t been able to conclude what’s right, wrong or what, because he refuses to take action to expose anything that would verify that.”
Now, schools officials are still unsure where the problem originates or how far it extends, and thus how long it will take to fix it. They have gone back through the drawings and believe they are all correct, and they do not think the foundation — which passed an independently inspection — is the problem either. Thus, officials have concluded that the problem must lie in the construction itself, Makofksy said.
In a worst-case scenario, removing and replacing the steel could add as much as a year to the project, the OPSB superintendent said.
“We have been pushing everybody aggressively to get to the point where we can make a best and worst-case scenario,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, to get to that point, it takes everybody to dance, and we have a contractor who’s not willing to dance.”
John Wallace of Jacobs CSRS, the firm managing the project, said a first meeting has been called for this week toward terminating the contract. The contractor, FH Paschen, was not represented in Saturday morning’s meeting.
“The intent is to have a building that is structurally sound and … to have a safe environment for students and teachers,” Wallace said. “We’re not taking any compromises in that respect.”
‘We didn’t want to go backwards’
More than 40 people attended the meeting on Saturday morning, and the news troubled Audubon Charter School leaders and parents on numerous levels — lack of communication, the timing of the announcement and lack of confidence in the construction.
“Given the absence of quality work and the reluctance of the contractor to address this, I have concerns about the work going forward,” said Audubon board member Eva Alito.
They also questioned why they were not alerted earlier — Audubon leaders were only told of the problem last week, at a meeting of the Orleans Parish School Board’s property committee.
“Three months ago, I could have made decisions to apply to a school that makes sense for me,” said Rachel Watts, who said she drives two hours a day to get her child to school.
Orleans Parish officials replied that they did not know how severe the problem was at first — whether it was just an issue with a single beam that could be replaced, for example, without any major demolition.
“We have spent weeks trying to see if we could see what the problem was without demolishing,” Young said. “We didn’t want to go backwards if we could help it.”
Some parents asked about the possibility of expanded bus service from Uptown to the temporary campus in Gentilly, and others about moving playground equipment from the Broadway campus to Gentilly for the duration of the project. Audubon officials said those decisions will come when they know more about the Broadway situation with certainty.
“I’m worst-case scenario, so I’m assuming my child will never go” to Broadway, said parent Adrienne Schulman, whose son has two more years at the lower campus.
Audubon Charter School Principal Janice Dupuy said that while she is still frustrated by the news and “trying to make peace” with it herself, she believes the actual worst-case scenario would be for the process to be unduly hastened, and for students to return to a building that was not properly built.
“After we get over our anger and our disappointment, ultimately we need a safe, sound building for our children,” Dupuy said.
Meanwhile, Audubon’s odyssey out of its other problematic building — the former Carrollton Courthouse — is finally complete, but not without problems of its own. The move to the McDonogh 7 building on Milan Street was delayed from summer 2013 to this past winter break, and even on Saturday morning, workers still surrounded the building finishing the last remaining items.
Among the major projects at the Milan Street building, the blacktop will not be complete until Feb. 10 and a final inspection is scheduled this week on the remediation of the lead paint in the building. Other minor issues remain with the plumbing, security, climate-control and intercom systems, but Orleans Parish school officials say they are being addressed as well.
The renovation of McDonogh 7 took longer than initially expected because it was in poorer condition when the Recovery School District released it to OPSB in August 2012 than OPSB had expected, said board president Nolan Marshall Jr. Even as the renovation progressed, more issues were uncovered and addressed, he said, ballooning the project’s budget from $500,000 to $1.5 million — a departure from the OPSB’s normal process of a long planning period followed by a solid construction plan.
“In retrospect, we shouldn’t have started the project that way,” Marshall said. “This decision was made because we disappointed you all once.”
Audubon board chair Cornelius Tilton acknowledged that moving out of the Carrollton building was crucial, because of the air quality and water-intrusion issues that endless repairs were not addressing. Tilton asked for assurances that McDonogh 7 is also a temporary solution and that a final home for the school’s upper grades is still a priority, and Marshall replied that it was, noting that he has a grandchild at Audubon. When pressed about whether that home would be the much-debated Allen building that currently houses Sci High, however, Marshall said only that the board was trying to work everything out.
Over the last few years, Audubon’s facilites issues have been an “always-something situation,” said Audubon board member Greg Thompson, and the school’s parents, faculty and staff have largely been successful in spite of the Orleans Parish School Board’s involvement — not because of it. The OPSB itself has been more interested in political infighting than educational issues, Thompson said, though he noted that Marshall’s leadership does give him new hope for progress.
Moving forward, Thompson said, the OPSB has several “systemic deficiencies” it should seek to address, all of which are highlighted by Audubon’s current struggles. One is in communication, shown by the three-month delay before the school was notified about the steel issue at the Broadway campus. Another is in managing expectations, such as the repeated changes in the move to Milan Street. And the final issue is oversight, which both of those incidents illustrate, Thompson said.
“If those things are addressed at the OPSB level, I think the relations with the parents and the relations with the schools will get a lot better,” Thompson said. “I think parents will have a lot more confidence, and I think things will get done.”
Marshall praised the Audubon community’s diligence in advocating for their school.
“This is the answer, right here in this room — putting the public back in public schools,” Marshall said. “Stay on top of us. Make us do a better job. Keep bringing problems to light. I welcome the scrutiny.”