How to keep school construction in check

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

Federal Way Public Schools has a knack for doing things a little differently than your average school district — and I mean that in a good way.

Where some districts treat a construction bond as a license to spend money, our local district builds wisely and cost-effectively. A little-known citizens committee called the Facilities Construction Oversight Committee is one of the driving forces behind this approach that benefits taxpayers and students alike.

The committee has been reformed with the 2007 passage of the $149 million construction bond to rebuild five school buildings and three district facilities by 2013. (Full disclosure: I serve on the new committee, so consider this an inside perspective.) It’s a hybrid creature that will act as a fiscal watchdog, project think tank and community advocate as design and construction proceeds for the eight buildings.

The committee is the brainchild of Superintendent Tom Murphy, who formed the first oversight committee in 1999 after voters approved a bond to construct a new high school and middle school. Promising to build $83 million worth of schools in seven years is a big promise and one Murphy wanted to be certain of keeping. He felt that bringing together a diverse group of people, from construction professionals to PTA volunteers, would provide fresh perspectives to inform his decision-making. This group of taxpayers was also tasked with holding the district’s feet to the fire in completing the projects on time and on budget.

Oversight Committee (V. 1.0) worked fabulously. Todd Beamer High School came in at $45 million, a figure that nailed the budget and cost 60 percent less than the going rate for high schools in the region, according to facilities director Rod Leland. Sequoyah Middle School was built for $17 million, compared with the average price tag of $30 million for Puget Sound middle schools in 2005. Both buildings were completed on time — Sequoyah at almost a third of the average time for a Puget Sound area middle school.

While the buildings were constructed cheaper and faster than average, they aren’t the architectural equivalent of fast food. Both buildings are attractive and flexibly built to meet the needs of today’s students while allowing classroom layout to change as instructional styles change. And in an area that plucks my heartstrings, both structures have important green building design elements woven throughout.

In short, district taxpayers got excellent value for their money on the 1999 construction bond.

“The committee has been instrumental in assisting Federal Way Public Schools to bring its construction projects to completion “on time” and “on budget,” Superintendent Murphy said.

Forming the committee was a bold stroke and a uniquely Federal Way approach to governance: Get the community involved in solution-making. In some communities, this could lead to turf-marking and paralysis, particularly when it comes to a super-charged issue like schools. But Federal Way-ers have cultivated a do-it-yourself approach to government since incorporation.

I know there are a few loud voices shouting that local government is out of touch. But running down the spine of Federal Way are volunteer groups ranging from the Planning Commission to the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee that are influencing policy. Volunteer committees like these play an important interface between the populace and elected representatives.

The oversight committee is a slightly different animal, but no less vital. Our mission is to keep the projects on time and on budget, but we are a thinking committee, rather than a governance body. We get immersed in the details of project design and construction, discuss merits of different options, and offer advice to the superintendent so that he can make the most informed decisions possible.

Engineers, environmentalists, contractors and business people bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the efforts of the committee, said Murphy. Like presidential advisers, we provide perspective and different wisdom to the executive, so that he can make the best decisions possible.

I know to some that may sound like hooey, but I would offer my personal perspective that Murphy (and his management team) are serious listeners.

That, and the previous committee’s track record, suggests the oversight committee approach works.

Committee members also become important project advocates and omsbudmen, utilizing contacts and networks to solve real world challenges. In 2005, Sequoyah couldn’t get the lights on in order to open on time. State Rep. Skip Priest, who has served on both the 1999 bond committee and the current committee, knew who to call at the utility to solve the issue — and open the way for a lighted school.

I don’t know that I’ll be able to make any groundbreaking phone calls, but I can share with you readers the existence of this committee that is working for you to get those eight new buildings constructed as promised in the bond: On time and on budget.

Chris Carrel is a lifelong Federal Way resident and executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos, a nonprofit conservation organization working to preserve and restore Hylebos Creek and the West Hylebos Wetlands. Contact: chinook@hylebos.org or (253) 874-2005.

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