When Paul Pastorek came on board as interim state superintendent of education in late March, he brought with him a self-written job description: "Open schools well." Pastorek wants to get schools up and running in Orleans Parish, and he wants to do it efficiently and permanently.
For now, however, he admits that's not always possible. School-age children need somewhere to go, and they can't wait on major renovations or new construction. That means modular campuses and, according to Pastorek, not everyone is a fan of temporary school buildings.
"People want new schools; they don't want to live in the modulars," he says. "I understand that concern, but what I'm trying to communicate to people is right now I can't give them a new school by August. If I'm going to give you any school, I'm going to give the best school I can give you by August. I think a modular, although not the prime kind of school I'd like to give, is a fairly nice school."
As the new head of the state's Department of Education, which took over more than 100 of New Orleans' failing public schools after Hurricane Katrina, Pastorek is trying to forge ahead by opening 22 to 25 additional schools in the state-operated Recovery School District (RSD) in time for the next academic year. The added facilities, which bring the total RSD schools in New Orleans to at least 60, are a combination of renovated schools, schools leased from the Orleans Public School Board (OPSB), leased commercial space and modular schools.
By the time classes resume, Pastorek hopes to have 4,800 available classroom seats in nine modular schools. In October, he expects to open two more modular schools capable of handling 800 more students. Currently, eight of those modular school projects are under way.
Getting to this point hasn't been easy. In his first few days in office, Pastorek learned that even though the RSD had decided in October 2006 that opening modular schools would be unavoidable, the project proceeded at a lethargic pace. Meanwhile, costs seemed to escalate in a hurry.
Alvarez & Marsal, the financial services firm initially hired by OPSB in 2005 to manage the public school system -- and then hired by the state for $29 million in April 2006 to oversee school construction projects, coordinate FEMA funding and handle insurance claims -- also signed on to analyze potential locations for the RSD's modular campuses. The firm looked for sites that met certain criteria:
those that wouldn't need demolition to make room for the temporary buildings (only one school, Langston Hughes Elementary, will have to be demolished before the modular school can be constructed),
those already under RSD control, and
those in areas with large populations of children.
Ultimately, Pastorek says, former RSD superintendent Robin Jarvis picked the sites for the modular schools.
After choosing locations, the RSD in January hired a Metairie architectural and engineering firm -- Linfield, Hunter and Junius -- to handle site development, building placement locations and construction contract administration at 11 proposed campuses, according to RSD documents. The original contract was for $673,443, based on the $7.5 million construction budget. Larry Leblanc, one of the firm's principals, says he doesn't know where those original numbers came from. By April 20, however, the construction budget grew to $27.7 million -- and Linfield, Hunter and Junius' fee, in accordance with the state's architectural services fee calculator, grew to nearly $2.7 million. In addition to its obligations under the initial contract, the architectural firm ultimately became responsible for site surveys, geotechnical evaluations and environmental surveys.
In late February, an invitation to bid for the manufacture of the modular schools was sent out -- more than a month after the sites had been chosen and four months after it was decided modular classrooms would be needed.
That's where the project stood when Pastorek's term began. He won't go so far as to blame Jarvis for sluggishness on the modular project -- St. Bernard Parish's Unified School opened two months after the storm with modular buildings -- but he will say that there hadn't been a lot of progress by March 2007, 18 months after Katrina hit.
"All I know is that when I walked in the door, they still hadn't signed the contract for the construction of the modulars, and they still hadn't even begun the contract development for the site prep," Pastorek says.
Pastorek, a high-powered attorney with a reputation for getting things done, served eight years on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). That board is now his boss.
Since taking over as state education superintendent, Pastorek realized he would have to jumpstart the modular project. He put emergency orders in place to shorten the duration of the bid process for site preparation. When he learned that preparation was scheduled to occur one location at a time, he ordered the contractor to work on all sites simultaneously. The emergency invitation to bid was put out April 20, and in May, Arrighi Simoneaux, a Baton Rouge commercial construction company, was awarded a $30 million contract.
On April 2, the RSD announced that William Scotsman Inc., a Baltimore-based modular building manufacturer, would design, produce and deliver the temporary schools for $45 million. Bob Singer, executive vice president for Williams Scotsman, says that a plan of this scope normally would take up to six months, but it's being expedited because of the time sensitivity of the project. The prefabricated buildings are scheduled to begin arriving in late July, continuing into late August.
Pastorek admits that at first, he didn't think the modular project would be completed "until October or November." He says he believes it is now on schedule, but it's not an experience he would like to repeat.
"You're planning for the opening of the school year, and you don't want to be doing things at the last minute like we're doing now," he says. "You want to plan ahead."
Pastorek tried to prepare for the future when he hired CSRS, a consulting firm in Baton Rouge that specializes in facility design and management. As the owner of the modular schools, the RSD would have to make numerous decisions during the construction phase. (Think of the choices that a homeowner makes with a contractor.) For $40,000, CSRS became the RSD's representative for that phase of the project. Curtis Soderberg, an architect with CSRS, says his company will "move the process along" by completing such tasks as approving payment requests, reviewing shop drawings and assessing any other changes that Alvarez & Marsal, as the project manager, might need.
"Traditionally the Department of Education [which oversees the RSD] is not in the facility business," Soderberg explains. "Alvarez & Marsal were initially on the economic side and then got in on the facility side."
Jim Grady of Alvarez & Marsal isn't an architect or an engineer, but he is the modular schools' project manager. He says that Alvarez & Marsal was hired for "real estate advisory" and not as "architects or engineers." He is quick to point this out, likely because of a FEMA internal document first obtained and made public by The Times-Picayune.
In the document, FEMA states "A&M needs to realign themselves with more construction savvy personnel." Grady says that Alvarez & Marsal has competent personnel for the task. He specifically mentions two employees, Camille Sowler and Jason Smith, as examples. According to Grady, Sowler has a degree in construction management, but neither staff member has any experience in modular construction. Grady reports that his company has subcontracted with Meridian Consulting, "who we rely on for technical engineering work" as modular school construction consultants. Grady further defends his company's role as modular project manager, saying, "Alvarez & Marsal is not operating in a vacuum. We have technical folks and Superintendent Pastorek has technical experts as well."
Indeed, even though Alvarez & Marsal's three-year, $29 million contract with the state Department of Education is, in part, for real estate advisory with regard to all RSD schools, including modular campuses, it is not the only consultant dealing with school properties. The RSD and OPSB recently announced the selection of Parsons, a technical consulting and management firm, and Concordia LLC, an architecture and planning firm, to develop a school facilities master plan for public schools in Orleans Parish. The plan will include evaluations of existing school facilities and planning for new schools -- tasks that some would expect Alvarez & Marsal to handle under its contract, although a formal master plan was not part of A&M's contract.
Moreover, Pastorek refers to CSRS's Curtis Soderberg -- not Grady -- as the modular project manager. Pastorek says he expects the state's contract with Alvarez & Marsal will end after the modular schools are finished, which will be roughly two years into the firm's three-year contract.
When completed, each modular school will be approximately 57,000 square feet and capable of handling up to 600 students. That is about the size of an average elementary school and a little less than the average public high school. The schools to be housed in the modular buildings include Edward Livingston (grades 9-12), Fannie C. Williams (elementary), Mary D. Coghill (grades K-8), Marion Abramson (grades K-12), Francis W. Gregory (grades 6-8), George W. Carver (grades K-12), Langston Hughes (grades K-8), and Sarah T. Reed (grades K-8). Two of the locations, Marion Abramson and George W. Carver, contain two modular campuses each: one for a grammar school and one for a high school. The Lower Ninth Ward campus of Holy Cross School, which has had a 600-student modular school in place since January 2006, will also be used temporarily (for up to two years), but it's yet to be determined which RSD school will use Holy Cross' modular campus. Holy Cross, meanwhile, will open in new modular classrooms in August at its new home at 5500 Paris Ave.
Each modular campus will include classrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, offices and a library. Shauna Sanford, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education (DOE), says representatives from RSD, DOE, FEMA and the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness assisted in the bid proposal's specifications and that Williams Scotsman designed its buildings accordingly. Pastorek says the campuses will be complete and uniform.
"It's a full school," Pastorek says of each new campus. "It's not like what you would think of a trailer or mobile home; it's a prefabricated building."
Pastorek doesn't, however, want the students and educators to get too comfortable in the modulars. He stresses that these buildings are genuinely temporary and will only be used for three to five years. Perhaps anticipating skepticism about that, Pastorek says he prefers leasing commercial space for schools -- there are currently five commercially leased sites that will house schools -- because those spaces reflect less potential for permanency.
"I hope that the commercial buildings are here for a very short period of time," Pastorek says. "I hope all of these are for a short period of time. What I want to do more than anything is to get on with construction."
Residents don't have to worry that erecting modular schools will mean there will be less money for new construction or renovations. According to Pastorek, FEMA pays for temporary relocation and has a separate category known as "Damage Recovery" that pays the cost of building a new school.
Pastorek maintains that he will continue to press Williams Scotsman for prompt delivery dates and that he will not accept "no, because ..." as an excuse. He does, however, have some flexibility. The initial forecast for the coming school year projected up to 13,000 new RSD students, but that number has been adjusted to between 6,000 and 7,000. Pastorek has more than 11,000 new classroom seats planned for the coming school year, with 1,800 more seats scheduled to become available during the year.
"I think we'll have adequate capacity for some time, and we can look at commercial conversion rather than modulars," Pastorek says.
As he looks toward new, permanent school construction, Pastorek hopes three projects will start before the end of the year.
What he can't predict is how much longer he'll be on the job. His contract runs out in six months. "You know that little guy who stuck his finger in the dike? Well, I just stuck my finger in the dike -- but they didn't give me a contract to keep my finger there the whole time."
In a sense, the modulars are a reverse metaphor for Pastorek's nascent tenure as Louisiana's education chief. He has a short-term contract that, if he does his job well, many will want to see become a long-term commitment, whereas the modulars are designed for short-term use, but many fear they could be around for a while.
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