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School Construction 2004

August 12, 2004

A little cooperation goes a long way

  • How two new leaders put Seattle's school construction plans back on track
    Heery International

    If, according to the poet John Dunne, "no man is an island," it certainly holds true that no school or city is an island either. In the 1980s, however, in the midst of a major capital building project, neither the Seattle Public Schools nor the city of Seattle recognized that.



    "Although I wasn't involved in the same capacity at the time, the capital program begun in the mid-1980s covered 15 major schools with either renovations or replacement facilities," said John Vacchiery, executive director of facilities planning and enrollment for Seattle Public Schools.

    Vacchiery is responsible for managing the district's capital improvements programs to improve schools throughout the district.

    "In that initial capital program," he said, "there was no coordination between the school district and the city.

    "We constantly found ourselves meeting about the same issues without achieving resolution. On one hand, we were at fault for not communicating our construction schedules with the city. On the other hand, we'd blame them for one thing or another, from taking too long to approve plans or changing requirement after plans had already been submitted. It was a difficult situation."

    Showing a united front

    Fortunately for the city and Seattle Public Schools, the times changed for the better. Since then, city voters have approved two more major Seattle schools capital projects programs — the $330 million Building Excellence 1 (BEX I) program in 1995, and the $398 million Building Excellence II (BEX II) program in 2001.

    There was no coordination between the school district and the city. It was a difficult situation.

    -- John Vacchiery,

    Seattle Public Schools

    "As we were gearing up for Building Excellence I ... the Department of Design, Construction and Land Use hired a new director," Vacchiery said.

    "Rick Krochalis hailed from the federal government and was recognized for his ability to create effective partnerships. In fact, he was instrumental in getting the city to look at partnering benefits." Vacchiery believes then-Mayor Norm Rice, a strong advocate for Seattle Public Schools, also played a key role in encouraging partnerships between the two seemingly disparate groups.

    "The overriding goal was for both groups to establish processes for managing a variety of building issues," Vacchiery said.

    "These processes could then be carried through on all projects. We knew our lack of cooperation with each other impacted the communities in which we were working and serving. We wanted not just to show a united front, but to be a united front."

    A strong communicator

    Recognizing the need for a strong communicator who could serve as a central contact and understand the needs and goals of the city and school district, the city hired longtime city employee Ovid Thompson in 1996. Not only was Thompson knowledgeable about city operations, he was also a strong Seattle schools supporter.

    "My charge was to create a communication network that would enable both groups to work together as effectively and efficiently as possible," Thompson said.

    Thompson worked hard to navigate uncharted waters. One of his first priorities was to establish monthly meetings between school construction managers and city regulatory agency personnel.

    New understanding

    Before cooperation could become the rule, a certain amount of education between the parties was needed.

    The city wanted the school district to get up to speed with city codes, know how many sets of plans had to be submitted for review and to whom, be consistent in presentations and understand the manner in which the city worked.

    The school district wanted more consistency in how and when plans were reviewed. The district also wanted to know the city agencies' key contacts. In the course of teaching each other what they wanted, the two groups were able to refine the permitting process in a mutually beneficial manner.

    "Under John's leadership, the district committed to providing accurate, consistent documents for city review," said Ralph Rohwer, vice president and project director of Heery International, which provided the construction management services for BEX I (and now BEX II).

    While compliance was foremost on everyone's mind, challenges still arose.

    "In the early phases of this partnership, I can remember inconsistencies regarding similar issues," Rohwer said. "Ovid, however, brought the agency and the issue to the table so that we could avoid the same problems in the future."

    For his part, Thompson sees himself as a conduit, plugging the right people into the switchboard, guaranteeing the appropriate connections are made.

    "Thanks to Ovid," Vacchiery said, "the district is now better able to establish realistic schedules, and the city is better able to meet its deadlines to keep those schedules on track."

    Better communication

    When new regulations or procedures are put into place, Thompson is certain to alert all parties.

    Thanks to a greater knowledge of the process, the school district is also better able to communicate with the community.

    "When we go to the public and the school board, we are able to relay what is required of a particular project, the rules, regulations and processes, and the time frame required in which to do the best job possible," Vacchiery said.

    Vacchiery, Rohwer and Thompson are certain their efforts and the efforts of their colleagues have played a key role in the capital programs' successes.

    "The success of BEX I did much to change mindsets within the city," Thompson said. "In fact, BEX II passed on the first time around by the greatest majority ever. We've even had people call us from Vancouver to ask us how the school district and city have managed to work together so seamlessly."

    Because of his role walking the line between the two parties, Thompson sees the answer clearly.

    "The bottom line," according to Thompson, "is that we're all here working to improve the lives and educations of our Seattle students.

    "The truth is that the city isn't always right and the school district isn't always right. Once we understand that simple truth, it's easier to work to resolve the differences so that our students and communities can be the ultimate beneficiaries."

    Sue Wasserman is a public relations manager at Heery International, a design, engineering and construction-management firm.

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