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Mayor: Public Building Commission will handle CPS construction projects

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett  |  Sun-Times files

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett | Sun-Times files

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Updated: May 5, 2013 2:54PM



Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s word — and possibly his political future — is riding on his ability to safeguard 30,000 students displaced by his decision to close 54 elementary schools and follow through on his promise to improve their new schools.

That’s apparently why he’s leaving nothing to chance.

Emanuel has ordered the Chicago Public Schools to funnel through the Public Building Commission he chairs all of the construction projects that must be completed by fall for what he calls “welcoming” schools for new students.

CPS has set aside $155 million for an array of enticing physical and educational improvements at 55 schools designated to receive students.

They include: a school library; air-conditioning in every classroom; some new science labs; expanded Internet bandwidth and other technology improvements; new or renovated playgrounds; interior upgrades and cosmetic improvements, including new floors, ceilings and paint and safety enhancements, including cameras and entry screening equipment.

Roughly $10 million of the $155 million is earmarked to purchase I-Pad’s for every third through eighth grade student.

But Civic Federation President Laurence Msall questioned the mayor’s decision to funnel the all-important school projects through the PBC.

“There has not been significant evidence that Public Building Commission projects have superior savings for local government construction projects,” Msall said.

“If the Chicago Public Schools administration is going to be held responsible for the success of these projects, then it would make sense to allow each individual government to decide what the best method of construction management should be.”

Until now, the PBC has confined its work for CPS to building new schools and school additions. Smaller projects have been handled by CPS and its outside consultants, in part, because the PBC tacks on a 3 percent management fee.

Not this time.

“The mayor’s office suggested — and CPS leadership agreed — that PBC do this work so CPS can focus on implementing their plan and ensure a smooth transition process for students,” the mayor’s communications director Sarah Hamilton wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“By using a design-build approach, PBC is better equipped to get this amount of work done in the necessary time-frame and at a lower cost. They have more flexibility and the ability to complete this work quickly and effectively.”

Emanuel has argued that the largest public school consolidation in the nation’s history is necessary to accommodate a decade of population losses and improve, both educational outcomes and the bottom line of a school system facing a $1 billion shortfall.

Why, then, would he choose a construction method that costs the cash-strapped school system more?

“PBC has a three percent management fee, which covers financial management, contract compliance and other costs. If CPS were to manage the project, they would incur those exact same costs on their side of the ledger,” Hamilton wrote.

She added, “There will be NO added cost to CPS. The bulk of the work is design and construction, which would have been bid regardless of which agency did the work. However, PBC has the ability to do design-build delivery [with design and construction work done simultaneously], which CPS does not. This allows work to be completed more quickly and at a potentially lower cost.”

Inside CPS, there has been internal grumbling about the mayor’s maneuver. But that’s not the official party line.

“CPS leadership is fully on board with this as it will allow us to focus more of our time and resources on our students and all of the planning needed to ensure that they have a safe and smooth transition this fall,” said CPS spokesperson Becky Caroll.

Ironically, the mayor’s edict comes at a time when the City Colleges of Chicago has opted to bypass the PBC on construction of a new Malcolm X College.

The last time the PBC presided over construction of a new City College — Kennedy-King — the $254 million project was delivered with record levels of minority participation.

But not before $62 million in cost overruns and years of construction delays caused, in part, by community demands for a piece of the action.

A $10 million city loan, $20 million from “tax-increment financing” (TIF) and $15 million in funds generated by putting off other City Colleges projects was needed to help rescue the project then-Mayor Richard M. Daley viewed as a catalyst to rebuild impoverished Englewood.

City Colleges Chancellor Cheryl Hyman could not be reached to explain the decision to go around the PBC. Hamilton answered for her.

“On Malcolm X, [City Colleges] had a plan to procure this differently — with a different financing and delivery method and took the project on themselves,” Hamilton wrote.

City Colleges “decided to use a traditional design-bid-build approach rather than send the work over to the PBC. And because so much of the planning had already been completed by [City Colleges], they chose to keep the project management in place.”

Last fall, the Chicago Sun-Times shined the light on the Rise Group’s no-bid, five-year, $95.6 million deal to oversee government buildings constructed by the PBC. The Rise Group had 95 people working under contract with the Public Building Commission in 2011, dwarfing the PBC’s own 62-employee payroll.



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