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Work group looks to streamline Md. school construction

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The 21st Century Schools Facilities Commission is charged with making recommendations on how the state can better manage the billions of dollars in school construction and renovations.

ANNAPOLIS — Members of a Maryland legislative task force want to streamline the school construction process by removing the oversight of one government agency.

A work group that is part of the 21st Century Schools Facilities Commission voted to recommend to the full commission eliminating a requirement that school systems submit construction or renovation plans for review by the Department of General Services. Supporters of the recommendation say that such efforts are often either redundant or increase costs by slowing down approvals needed to start projects that must be completed before schools re-open.

“The number one adage in construction — it’s a truism — is time is money. Time is money,” said Alex Szachnowicz, chief operating officer for Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “Anybody that’s in the design or construction field knows this truism from the day they get into the profession.”

Szachnowicz said delays in state reviews and approvals often result in higher construction costs as school systems pay for more overtime or workers to complete work in shorter periods of time.

“The more that we can do to lop off time up front, and I don’t mean to belittle this, but the more we can lop off with the paper on the front side of the process, the more time we’ll have for the constructors to be out in the field,” he said.

Szachnowicz said some smaller jurisdictions with tighter budgets may likely want to continue to use the departmental reviews to ensure state funding.

The work group Tuesday voted to recommend making participation in reviews by the Department of General Services optional, allowing some counties to use outside third-party reviewers that are pre-approved by the state. The costs of those outside reviews would be borne by individual local governments. Under the recommendations, the department would no longer be required to perform reviews of designs for replacement of equipment such as boilers or heating and cooling systems as well as major projects.

School construction and renovation requests currently pass through a number of reviews, including those conducted by the Maryland State Department of Education, the Interagency Agency Committee on School Construction and the Department of General Services, which answers to the governor.

The 21st Century Schools Facilities Commission was established by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. The group is charged with making recommendations on how the state can better manage the billions of dollars in school construction and renovations.

Part of that focus also includes finding new ways to increase the number of projects that can be paid for with limited financial resources. Last year Maryland put $285 million into school construction and renovation projects across the state.

Some Republicans see the 21st Century Schools Facilities Commission, created by Democrats in the legislature, as an effort to limit or even eliminate Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s role in school construction beyond providing money in the budget.

Martin Knott, chairman of the commission and president of Knott Mechanical, said the state process is mired in a bureaucracy that doesn’t hamper the private sector. Eliminating some of those hurdles could help save money.

“I can design a boiler replacement in any school in a day,” Knott said. I can take it to an engineer and he can tell me it will work in two days. That’s the way the real world works”

The recommendations approved Tuesday will be sent to the full 28-member commission for a vote scheduled for Nov. 14.

Opponents of the recommendation point out that DGS, which manages state properties and construction, provides an important check that can save taxpayer dollars.

“This is a lot of money we’re talking about,” said Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-Upper Shore. “We need this oversight.”

But Knott said the department is frequently the target of budget cuts. A lack of staffing extends delays in reviews of school construction and renovation proposals.

“It’s not a priority agency,” Knott said. “We’re just giving the locals the ability to (subcontract) it out.”

 


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