Federal Way Public Schools recently announced delays in the openings of three new schools, which will set back the construction projects by at least a year and cost upwards of $10 million.
While Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell said the district caused the delay due to their construction timeline and staffing issues, school district Superintendent Tammy Campbell claims the city’s challenging permitting process is the reason for the holdup.
At a legislative breakfast in Federal Way on Dec. 11, former Rep. Kristine Reeves questioned Campbell about the permitting process challenges in regards to the school construction projects.
“I will be sharing that those projects are delayed,” Campbell said at the event. “… It will probably be in excess of eight million dollars for those delays, for those school projects.”
FWPS communicated to parents of Lake Grove, Mirror Lake and Wildwood elementary schools last week about the school construction and opening timeline delays. The elementary schools were originally planned to open in fall of 2020, but with the delays, the schools are tentatively set to open sometime in winter 2021.
“As previously shared, the permitting process took more time than anticipated, and we will need to delay the opening date for the new building,” an email from each school’s principal to parents states.
“In fall 2020, we will begin the school year in the temporary campus [the former DeVry Building] while construction is completed on the new building,” the letter continues, adding that students will move into the new building during the winter of the 2020-21 school year.
In response to Campbell’s comments about the construction delays at the legislative breakfast and another public meeting in early December, the city published a detailed memo on Dec. 17 outlining their work with the district throughout the two-year pre-construction process.
The 13-page document claims the district routinely provided incomplete permitting submittals and alleges the district illegally worked on construction projects before they were permitted, among other items.
The memo was created for and sent to Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, at his request, by Public Works Director EJ Walsh and Community Development Director Brian Davis. The mayor also forwarded the memo to the council.
“We’re talking about public money and public trust,” Ferrell told the Mirror. “The people deserve to know the truth.”
However, Campbell vehemently denies many of the city’s claims in the memo.
Concerns over permitting timelines
The $450 million school construction bond is the largest in both school district and city history.
In November 2017, voters approved the bond to improve eight total schools, including Thomas Jefferson High School, Totem and Illahee middle schools, and Olympic View, Lake Grove, Mirror Lake, Star Lake and Wildwood elementary schools, as well as provide improvements to Memorial Stadium.
Currently, Lake Grove, Mirror Lake and Wildwood elementary schools and Thomas Jefferson High School are in the construction phase. Star Lake Elementary and Totem Middle School are in the design phase. The district also renovated the former DeVry building into an interim campus to house students while their home school is being constructed.
The bond was “a huge magnitude project” involving multiple schools and timelines, said Tyler Hemstreet, communications coordinator for the city.
“Once the same mistakes keep getting made and the same shortcuts keep getting taken, that’s where we’re at now.”
When they went to voters, Ferrell believes the district had an artificial timeline in place and “I think that is where the beginning of the problem took place.”
However, Campbell said the district has “hard stop and start times and I don’t know if that resonated [with the city] … Unlike a business that can open any month, we cannot.”
The district didn’t consult the city on the bond measure, Walsh said, adding that although there is no requirement for the district to do so, the bond consultation before the measure was passed would have ensured the projects were completed to meet the applicable city codes.
“Had they brought us in on some regard of the project early on, we could have helped it before it got off on the wrong track,” Hemstreet added.
In August 2018, the district shared with the city their plans to break ground on all three elementary schools (Lake Grove, Mirror Lake, and Wildwood) a year later in August 2019. The city informed the district that a typical timeline from first to final permit approval is between 15-18 months.
“Already we were three to six months behind,” Davis said.
However, the mayor told the district that failure isn’t an option, Campbell recalls of a meeting with the city held shortly after the bond passed, “But I didn’t hear that at the team level … I did not get the affirmative. ”
“There was no clear indication that we were going to miss [the opening timeline],” said Mike Benzine, executive director of maintenance and operations for FWPS. “We were working together. We were going to work together.”
The city memo states in order to meet the August 2019 groundbreaking plan, the city needed permit submissions by Sept. 30, 2018. The district submitted the first land-use applications for the three elementary schools on Jan. 10, 2019.
Permitting details delay process
For each type of permitting application, there is a checklist of required materials, city staff told the Mirror on Dec. 18. But even if an entity completes the checklist, the city may still not approve the permit.
“Everything in the permitting world is effectively custom,” Davis said.
With the school district, it became routine for the city to receive full or partial resubmissions of applications from the district, he explained.
Instead of a comprehensive approach, which is what the city usually requires, he said, the district provided separate pieces of the applications which, in turn, “makes time frames go way up.”
With the city’s typical turnaround time on standard submitted applications and revisions averaging is between 30 and 45 days, the city was averaging a six-to-10 day turnaround time for the school district’s applications, Hemstreet added.
However, the district said permitting delays stemmed from city staff’s “changing targets” and constant adjustments to the city’s interpretations.
“The city would provide us with comment letters,” said Ray Vefik, senior project manager with CBRE Heery, Inc. architecture company. “We would go and address that. We would submit our information and the next comment that came out, it interpreted the previous comments differently.”
Vefik noted he has worked on similar scale projects with the Seattle Public Schools and hasn’t encountered the types of permitting challenges he experienced with the city of Federal Way.
When city staff notified the district of incomplete submissions, it was often because the city’s expectations kept changing, such as additional requirements being added on or the new comments contradicted previous comments, the district stated.
At times, comments were vague or inconsistent, and in other instances, permits were held up for things such as minor misspellings, the district explained.
The review process with most jurisdictions typically requires two review and response cycles.
In some cases, the district experienced as many as four cycles for both land use and building permits with the city.
City, district question staffing
The city had different staff working on each project, which was “a little bit of a double-edged sword,” Walsh said.
The city did not hire any additional staff to assist with the construction projects, stating it was unnecessary, according to Hemstreet.
“The school district’s delays in regard to these projects do not boil down to a staffing issue on the city’s end,” Hemstreet told the Mirror.
“We had different reviewers working on each project,” Davis said. “So the reviewers for Mirror Lake were not the same as the ones for Lake Grove …”
The city established four different teams to handle each of the four construction projects (three elementary schools and the former DeVry campus).
“That’s another way that we went above and beyond …” Davis said.
To date, the city has received $1.4 million from the district in the permitting process. Due to the amount of permitting costs and the bond total, the district stated they felt it was legitimate to ask for an increase in city staff to help meet critical project deadlines.
“Progress on the elementary school projects would halt when there were no backups or substitute support when City staff were out of the office, sometimes for extended periods of time,” the district stated. “Although there were multiple projects, the support from the City was that they could only focus on one project at a time.”
Instead of opening in the fall as originally planned, the three elementary schools will tentatively open December 2020 or January 2021.
The estimated impact is anywhere between $8 to $10 million, the district confirmed. These expenses resulting from the delays will most likely impact the remaining projects of the bond, although the district is still evaluating the remaining dollars and cannot provide this information at this time.
While waiting for permit approvals, there are delay costs in real time, such as equipment storage and season transition impacts, said Michael Swartz, executive director of capital projects for the FWPS district.
The memo, mayor and city staff directly questioned Swartz’s qualifications to handle these projects. According to district documents, Swartz has 30 years of experience in education with 18 years experience as a principal.
“I think ultimately what happened is, this is not beginner’s work. This is a big deal,” said Ferrell. “They really need somebody who has done this before … it’s absolutely essential that you have the right team in place and people who know what they’re doing.”
In response to the mayor, the district said: “It is irresponsible to call out an individual and call this beginner’s work.”
The district defended their staffing on this project, stating they identified a construction management firm to support their construction projects, CBRE Heery.
They have a team of engineers, project managers and other experienced construction management professionals with decades of experience who have played a significant role in leading their efforts throughout the permitting process, the district stated.
“As part of our operating procedures, our FWPS staff is available 24/7 to manage the school construction projects to keep them moving forward in a timely manner,” Swenson explained, also noting that FWPS assigned two designated staff members to the capital projects.
According to the district:
• FWPS Capital Projects Director Casey Moore initiated the school construction timeline and continues to inform school construction efforts. Moore brings 30 years of project management experience on projects from $18 – $200 million in construction value and has supported projects for at least four other school districts in the past.
• Vefik, the contracted project manager supporting these three elementary school projects, has 20 years specifically in the area of K-12 project management and served as a Capital Projects Subcommittee Director for another school district for projects totaling $456 million.
City claims district worked ‘illegally’ on projects
Amid the permitting process, the city claims the school district worked illegally on the sites of both Mirror Lake Elementary and former DeVry building interim campus, adding another layer of time consumption to the projects.
Davis recalls there were a couple of instances hat were “really unpleasant and unnecessary …”
The first of which was at the former DeVry building, when the city found out the district was working on site without any permits. Once the city confirmed this, they put up a “stop work” notice, Davis said.
Another instance, this time with Mirror Lake, the city again received complaints of construction on site.
The district did not have a permit and they did not have an approved plan of how they were going to move traffic safely around their work area and they obstructed the right of way, Walsh said, adding that the district did receive a cease work order, and complied to the requirements within the day.
“We’re both in the interest of getting the projects completed; that was everyone’s goal,” Davis said. “… ‘let’s just get the doors open so that the kids can get in the doors’ and it’s things like this that just frustrated the process.”
The school district said they strongly disagree with the term “illegal” and that FWPS would never knowingly move forward with illegal work on projects.
In the incident the city refers to at Mirror Lake, FWPS said in a statement this was “a minor issue.” The district received a notice of violation from the city notifying of an “illegal temporary construction fence” in the city right-of-way.
“After receipt of this letter from the City of Federal Way on May 16, 2019, our team was onsite within two hours relocating the construction fence back to the property lines, the same day we were notified,” Swenson stated.
For the allegations at the former DeVry campus, the district requested to proceed with interior, non-structural wall framing without sheet rock while the building permit application was under review.
“The City of Federal Way told us that we can proceed at our own risk with the early work of framing,” Swenson noted. “At no time did the City tell us that it would be illegal moving forward, or we couldn’t do so. We were only told that there would be risk involved if the work didn’t meet code requirements and would have to be redone.”
The city issued a stop work order and FWPS complied until proper permits were obtained.
The district’s future projects include rebuilding Illahee Middle School and Olympic View Elementary School, where they will once again go through the city’s permitting process.
While it isn’t about who is right or pointing a finger at each other, Ferrell said, the city had to draw a line at some point.
“My sincere hope is that they’re going to learn from this first set [of projects] and that we don’t keep running into this,” Ferrell said. He added: “We don’t just want the school district to succeed, we need them to.”
Campbell and her team have taken this round of permitting as a learning experience and will look at ways to improve their own team, she said.
“It’s never about blame, but it is about growth and learning as we move along.”