"Fiasco(s)" and the Opening of School

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here and I’ve meant to start doing meeting wrap-ups for anyone who might be interested so, here you go. As usual, I am but one board member and this is my opinion, I have one vote and no power outside of that one vote.

Mobile Unit “Fiasco”

At last night’s Round Lake Area Schools CUSD 116 board meeting we got a follow-up from an email we received on Friday about three mobile units acquired by the district. Over the past few months I have grown to loathe this project and here’s why.

This mobile classroom project was devised to help address short term space needs while several of our building projects are undertaken. The biggest space crunch we have is in the elementaries, in this board member’s opinion, with some issues at the new Round Lake Middle School. The project was first proposed by our architects, Gilfillan Callahan Architects as costing approximately $600,000 in total for brand new modular classrooms to be installed at an appropriate site. Then the bids for the mobiles came back and the lowest one was over a million dollars, likely due to the high demand for the units in the wake of Katrina relief efforts.

That plan now clearly not workable we then started a search for some used mobile units. Our CEO Dennis Stonewall and CFO Walter Korpan took a roadtrip to Detroit where some rather new units were identified. While still not at it’s target of $600,000 the purchase of the mobiles settled around this amount with another $300,000 for transport, installation, setup of the buildings, etc.

It was determined that the best place for these mobiles would be Indian Hill and Murphy. When Murphy was mentioned it certainly got my attention because anyone familiar with the history of the district will know our long and storied history of building related issues at Muprhy. The site is a bog, has been a bog, and always will be a bog. I have no idea how deep the foundation there had to go in order to support the tall gymnasium walls but I’m pretty sure they were digging a while when Murphy was built. But, I had assumed that if our architects suggested such a plan and we reviewed sites with them that sites would have been surveyed and issues identified before Murphy was selected. I questioned where on the property it was going to go and next to the gym high and dry seemed to be acceptable.

So, our new construction managers, Seater Construction who, I believe, have already proven how needed they were by the district, came back with borings and found that standard foundation moorings for these mobiles were not going to work at Murphy, something of a much larger scale would need to be done. There could be an alternative means of pointing the corners and doing a type of span support as opposed to just piers but that is being looked at. After this was determined it was decided, by the CEO apparently, to retask them with borings at RLHS and see if that would be a suitable spot for the mobiles.

This is the point where I reached my breaking point with this project. The reason is when you consider that we have a building that has been closed for two years, the vast majority of which is certainly usable in some form for classroom space, we throw money at this mobile project that started out small and has now turned into the “fiasco” I labeled it last night as quoted in the Daily Herald. Secondly, despite numerous reminders about the overcrowding we have at the elementaries attention is still given to RLHS, the recipient of a very new addition. I saw one of the “classrooms” that was suggested for a special ed placement for my son next year, it’s a converted small social worker office. There aren’t many kids in the class, probably about 8 but the room is so small and narrow that the kids have to rearrange their desks when the teacher needs to use the chalkboard. Our HVAC project isn’t going to be done until next summer either, I’m sure a welcome thought to those many people in our buildings without air conditioning after the recent streak of near 100 degree days.

This is what leads to my frustration, a lack of planning to properly execute on the building issues that are going to affect this district not just tomorrow or next year but many years down the road. All while Magee sits while we plan and deliberate for the second time what to do with it. This is after a total plan and design by our previous architect that was tossed aside for Gilfillan to start from scratch when they came in. Two more years are going to pass before the building will be open again at the current rate.

Switch Cells — Nextel to Verizon to Nextel

Last night the board also voted to switch our cell service back to Nextel. I voted against this and was alone in my dissent. Perhaps it’s a bit of my Nextel bias from having one on my hip in the area for the past seven years and the way the annoying chirp and rings find their way into my dreams. Anyway, I thought it was a poor business decision.

One of the first actions when I came back on board was to dump Nextel for Verizon. Our administration researched several plans with different companies and it was determined that Verizon was the best deal despite the fact that U.S. Cellular had come in under that bid by several hundred dollars a month. I have had U.S. Cellular for about two years now so I will readily admit my bias there, I think they’re a great company with great service though and won best cellular carrier in Chicago from Consumer Reports last year.

I immediately seized on this with the administration. The explanation was we had to really work U.S. Cellular to get a bid out of them, their sales rep wasn’t very helpful, etc. I still pointed out they had the lowest bid, and by far. Then some figures were given for Verizon reception. I didn’t think the testing we did with the phones was a very scientific method of doing that and it wasn’t even done at all our sites with U.S. Cellular so I don’t really buy into this that much. Anyway, the Verizon contract was approved, I believe I voted against it (sorry, it’s one of my very first votes since coming back!).

Well, now we have a Verizon fiasco in the district. The reception was good but is now awful, their push-to-talk capability is nowhere near what it was with Nextel, they are not helpful with customer service or doing what they promised. It was determined this would be a good time to dump them, since we had that option in our contract, and go back to Nextel. We have now talked to Nextel and they can put antennae at our buildings with bad reception and they’ll clear it all up now. The problem is we still have nothing in writing from anyone that these antennae (called “BDA”s) aren’t going to cost us anything and are certainly going to resolve the problem. There’s a body shop on Highway 45 in Lake Villa that I use my personal cell phone to call my insurance customers on because my Nextel plain doesn’t work there.

Besides, we need to be on push-to-talk with the police and fire departments. This one greatly irritated me. 1) This wasn’t much of a consideration when we dumped Nextel for Verizon, why is it now? 2) Nextels ARE NOT the primary means of communication used by the police and fire department (I hope not anyway, my Nextel is terrible at my house, hopefully the police wouldn’t use a Nextel to communicate at an emergency at my house because they would be shaking the phone pressing the button waiting for the annoying chirp and hoping that it won’t crash or lockup or emit the very high pitched constant tone accompanied by the “user not available” message while they watch their signal bounce between zero bars and four bars — but I digress). If we were concerned with our ability to do that in an emergency then we should look at two-way radios compatible with them for such situations. Oh, and 3) I’m glad the villages and fire department have the money to pay extra to get Nextel and their superb service because this district needs to be watching every cent and if their phones don’t work in four of our buildings I don’t know why we’re making special allowances for them to come and address their signal issue and not seeing what other vendors have to offer us.

So, the board approved going back to Nextel last night based on the VERBAL commitment of our Nextel Reseller that the BDAs wouldn’t cost us anything and that we could back out of that contract within 30 days of the BDA installation. A reseller I might add that previously serviced our contact with Nextel but we never heard from them. We heard from them after we canceled our service. They promised to service our account and look after us this time. Sorry if I can’t vote based on vendor promises, I’ve seen it bite this district too many times before (Johnson Controls anyone?) when the we rely too much on one vendor or the word of one vendor without doing our proper oversight. I don’t vote on promises, if they say Nextel won’t charge us for the BDAs they should put it on paper instead of the word “tentatively” they used on the paper in their presentation last night.

Well, looks like my final topic is going to need it’s own blog entry and will be posted later. Cheers!