Putting Together to Work on a Capital Project

by Dudley Hare Jr.

Managing complex capital construction projects provides formidable challenges to school leaders. Increasing enrollment, new state mandates, aging schools and the need for technology-rich environments are issues that require both more space and better quality facilities.

Short-handed district leadership teams already find themselves more than fully engaged with ongoing responsibilities. Taking on a major construction project creates a broad range of new, time-consuming duties. When the oversight of a complex, multi-million dollar capital project is added to the leadership’s ongoing responsibilities, school administrators face a daunting question: How do you manage it all?

Outside consultants such as architects and construction managers can be helpful and provide essential input in guiding the project. Both common sense and state regulations, however, require that district leadership teams control their own projects, manage their own related finances and maintain total project accountability. Local taxpayers would expect no less.

For controls to be independent, accurate and effective, they must be overseen and managed by the owner. Outside consultants to the project team should play a key role but within their specific area of expertise and subject to the district’s scrutiny.

Problems with a capital project are often the result of shortcomings in planning and oversight related to the complexity of the task. Inadequately informed team members, incomplete financial record keeping and lack of timeliness in preparing and submitting essential reports and forms are contributing factors. Consequently, school leaders may find themselves unable to account for all project funds, facing questions about overpayments to contractors or scrambling to recover from the loss of construction reimbursements. Major disagreements then can arise with contractors and vendors, leading to litigation.

Tech Solutions

Many school districts completing building projects do not take adequate advantage of the excellent technology available to assist them with monitoring and managing their projects. Districts have the option of creating their own technology based controls, which requires sophisticated planning and programming skills, or they can turn to technology solutions currently available in the marketplace that are designed to put administrators in charge and in control of their projects.

To reach the goals of any project we recommend a number of technology-related strategies in the broad areas of communications, accountability and project support.

Communications. A district planning team of key staff and project consultants can meet regularly. A e-mail contact list provides teamwide communications, including meeting notifications, meeting minutes and a means of recording all important communications among team members. The latter helps to minimize fingerpointing should questions emerge.

The team should jointly establish an overall project timeline and a process for electronically flagging each key milestone date for all team members. In addition, a community information strategy should be developed to maintain public awareness of project progress. The school district website can be the vehicle for ongoing updates.

The communications plan also should include a schedule of required and desired communications with regulatory agencies so reports and forms are submitted on a timely basis. This can result in the maximizing of building aid and other reimbursements.

Accountability. Technology can be used to create a central data repository so all project participants can document project progress, enter essential project data, access reports or check records from a project tracking center. Integrate the technology of all project team members and develop a reporting tool that allows full access, participation and sharing of information among architects, construction managers, district staff and other key team members.

The ability to maintain multi-year project financial and accounting records, independent of the district’s annual operating budget records, is important. Software can be used to monitor the borrowing of capital project funds and related investments with time-sensitive flags ensuring key deadlines are met.

A construction change order log must be maintained to keep current, accurate records of project modifications. This will ensure all required approvals and related record keeping has taken place. Through exception reports, you can notify project team members when a requirement has not been met. Contractor management forms can help you monitor the progress of each contractor.

Documenting Risk

Project support. You will need to establish a process for identifying highly qualified, experienced and technologically literate financial and legal advisers and connect them to the project planning team and the electronic communications center at the outset of the project.

You can account for project risk management by creating clear insurance standards and though the use of software to monitor adequate limits of coverage of each contractor. Team members should be notified as policy expiration dates approach.

Electronic files should document each incident related to the project, such as injuries on the job. Include statements from witnesses, medical records and digital pictures of the incident site. The school district’s attorney will be pleased with this documentation when a claim against the district is filed.

Keep in mind that community trust and confidence in the board of education, the school leadership team and the school district are at stake in the implementation of a capital construction project. Well conceived, carefully planned and guided projects, resulting in outstanding new facilities, can yield an appreciative, supportive school community and a highly respected leadership team. Technology can be a major asset as you attempt to reach these objectives.

Dudley Hare is chief operating officer of Capital Projects Software, 37A Saw Mill River Road, Hawthorne, NY 10532. E-mail: J. Michael Orifici, CEO of Capital Projects Software, contributed to this article.