84% of B.B.’s construction change orders were not properly submitted to the state

District works to correct organizational errors that have been rooted in $50.7 million bond project
September 7, 2023 at 12:15 a.m.
With a new addition, Ridge Street Elementary School stands majestically, but getting it built was not an easy process. A recently issued report by the Office of the New York State Comptroller highlighted several issues related to the handling of bond construction change orders, which the Blind Brook School District must resolve before the project can close out.
With a new addition, Ridge Street Elementary School stands majestically, but getting it built was not an easy process. A recently issued report by the Office of the New York State Comptroller highlighted several issues related to the handling of bond construction change orders, which the Blind Brook School District must resolve before the project can close out. (David Tapia/Westmore News)

By SARAH WOLPOFF | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment
Assistant Editor

Change orders are back in the rhetoric at Blind Brook Schools, this time because the state has taken an interest in some red flags over the way they’ve been handled.

The Office of the New York State Comptroller makes auditing rounds, investigating every school district in the state every few years. This year was the Blind Brook School District’s turn, for the first time since 2016.

“They come to do an audit, and they look at various aspects of your district and the business office. And based on what they see, they choose an area to focus on,” said Superintendnet Dr. Colin Byrne. “Based on everything they found with us, they choose to focus on change orders.”

In a way, it wasn’t so surprising. Blind Brook officials have openly discussed numerous times over the last few years griefs over change orders related to the bond project at Ridge Street Elementary School—the frequency, financial implications and the way they were being handled. However, Byrne suggested the extent of the issues was a little unexpected.

Blind Brook’s capital bond project, originally approved as a $44.7 million investment, has seen 262 change orders totaling $5.7 million since it first broke ground in the summer of 2019, the Comptroller’s Office reported.

It has since come out, per district officials, that many of the change orders were a result of errors and omissions affiliated with the original architectural design of the project—such as issues pertaining to the structural reinforcement for windows and natural gas connections, according to the district’s response to the Comptroller’s Office. And because of the alterations along with inflation and various construction delays, the district was forced to garner approval for an additional $6 million bond to finish the work.

“Change orders can significantly impact the cost of capital projects to taxpayers,” the audit report reads. “When capital projects change order process is not carefully monitored by district officials the risk of budget overrun increases.”

The audit found that of the 151 change orders the Comptroller’s Office reviewed, 122—or 84%—of them were not submitted to the State Education Department (SED) for approval by the Commissioner of Education. The financial value of these alterations totals $2.7 million. Six of the change orders, adding up to $155,170, were approved by the Commissioner of Education, but the monetary value differed from Blind Brook’s records. And lastly, the audit noted that 17 change orders had been submitted to the state but had not received approvals.

Change orders are official adjustments in the work contract that are necessary when a modification in a construction project is needed, Byrne explained, often due to unexpected situations that come up. Every construction project experiences them, though the frequency of Blind Brook’s was excessive.

“They have to go through a process,” the superintendent said. “It gets passed by the contractor, the architect, the construction manager, then the district superintendent signs off on it and the school board has to officially approve it. Then, it gets sent to the SED, because the SED approved the full plan, so they have to review the change order to make sure it makes sense to include into the project.”

The Blind Brook School District had a breakdown, Byrne said, in terms of the submission process—the district claims that they had the understanding their architect had been sending change orders to the state for approval, but that was not the case.

“Why that didn’t happen, I don’t know,” Byrne said. “But now we’re trying to address it, now that we know about it, to make sure all the change orders get up there and squared away.”

Prior to the audit, the district knew that there were issues with change order submissions, Byrne said. And Board of Education officials have several times expressed dissatisfaction with their original project architects Kliment Halsband.

“That’s why the district hired the second architectural firm (BBS Architects) to come in and help with those submissions to get them done. So that work really started well before the audit was in place,” he said. “It just takes time, unfortunately. It’s tricky for BBS because they’re trying to review things that they were not here for, they weren’t involved before. And they’re trying to review things from consultants who are no longer here, because the architect isn’t here, and our initial construction management company was released.”

Due to conflicts with the original construction management company, Savin Engineers, the Blind Brook School District terminated its relationship with them and hired School Construction Consultants instead.

The school district is taking legal action against some of its former partners, but the details are vague as officials are wary to comment on current litigation.

As for the discrepancies that were found with numerous change orders, where the SED had a different monetary number documented than the district, Byrne said they’re starting to put together the organizational confusion that occurred.

“It looks like the management company, when they were generating change orders, reused a bunch of change order numbers,” he said, referring to the numerical documentation of each alteration request. “Typically, you don’t reuse them, you also issue new numbers, because they have to be tracked throughout the project. But at some point, a series of change orders that either were not approved or forgotten about, the numbers of those were used again then approved.”

In those cases, the SED received the approved financial figure, while the district had the original written change order filed.

“We’re trying to untangle all of that,” he continued, “to go back and make sure whatever the state has listed, that ours match that. And if there’s others that need to be submitted, we issue them new numbers…and we’re trying to work out particulars, like what happened with the initial change orders—if we have them listed as something different, or if they were just never submitted.”

The district is still looking into the 17 change orders that were submitted to the SED but never approved. While they could have been rejected requests, Byrne said it’s possible that the SED simply has not processed them yet.

Byrne recognized that it looks “upsetting” to see a report signifying that he and Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Facilities Laurie Baum have been unaware of several discrepancies and unsure of how they happened. But in a way, that’s part of the story.

The Blind Brook School District has seen tremendous turnover since the start of the construction project—both in the teams facilitating the work and in its own administration.

Baum wasn’t even hired until January 2022. And Byrne, formerly the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, stepped into his current role in October 2021—both coming into leadership after former Superintendent Dr. Patrick Brimstein and Assistant Superintendent Mary O’Neill resigned amid construction drama at Ridge Street School.

“While both the superintendent and the assistant superintendent said they were not aware that the architect was not submitting most changes to SED for the commissioner’s approval, the superintendent should have ensured the architect was doing so,” the audit report stated, which was a notion Byrne did not contest.

“We didn’t know because we weren’t involved,” he said. “Laurie wasn’t even here, and I was switching between roles. I knew some of the work, but not all of it. Ultimately, it’s the superintendent’s job to make sure this is done. And now that we know about it, we’re certainly trying to address it. But you can’t address something you don’t know about.”

At stake is the potential building aid associated with the $2.7 million worth of change orders in question—the state will only allocate reimbursements for eligible construction it approved. But Byrne has confidence that it will not be jeopardized. As long as the change order fiasco gets worked out, the district should be in good standing.

During the Aug. 30 Board of Education meeting, as Byrne presented the board’s 2023-24 school year goals, he made a joke rooted in absolute truth—suggesting the significant objective is ensuring there is no construction-related goal next year.

It was a sentiment he later echoed.

“I’d like to end this year with no more construction project,” he said, anticipating an optimistic timeline for the next few months.

While it’s predicted the change order dilemma will take several months to sort out, Byrne assured that it will not impact any physical fundamentals of the project—such as the district’s ability to attain a permanent Certificate of Occupancy for Ridge Street Elementary School.

Construction has essentially been completed. Within the next two weeks, he said the fire truck access lane—the last step of the project—should be finished, and then they’re one inspection away from getting the certification process started.

“It’ll be nice to not have to chase COs for a long time,” Byrne said. “I know we’re in a complicated situation, and it was frustrating when we saw this because there’s been enough issues with this construction project that everyone has had to deal with. We’re trying to do our due diligence and make sure we’re recording everything properly and making sure whatever paperwork has to get done gets done so we can really close out this project.” 


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