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Master Builder

L.A.'s Jim McConnell deals with construction cost increases, problem projects and teacher union crit

A handful of school districts in the country are so big, it's almost impossible to compare them with other districts. For instance, the only entity that feeds more people than the New York City School district is the United States Army. So when the Los Angeles Unified School District sought someone in 2001 to lead the largest school construction project in the country, it's no surprise that its search yielded Jim McConnell. A former Navy captain, McConnell was brought in to the 740,000-student district to build 160 new schools while renovating 12,000 others. Taxpayers just gave the district its latest vote of confidence, approving the fourth school bond measure since 1997. The bonds total more than $13 billion, and the latest one in November was for $4 billion. This approval came during an election where statewide voters rejected all eight of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposals. The bond measures will cost taxpayers about $111 per $100,000 in assessed property value. The construction project is slated for completion in 2012. (At press time, McConnell announced that he would be leaving LAUSD when his contract expires in June.)

Not bad for a district that had to rebuild public trust after the Belmont Center, a $150 million learning center for 5,000 students, never opened because it was built on a fault-line. During a recent interview with District Administration contributing editor Fran Silverman, McConnell said that he is confident the district's projects will remain on schedule and on budget. Here he talks about overcoming construction price hikes, the benefits of being an engineer, and how he plans to turn around the most troubled school project in the country.

Why the need for this district's massive building project?

McConnell: Los Angles hasn't built schools with any meaningful intent in 40 years. There's been nothing to keep up with the growth of 5,000-10,000 new students a year. We found ourselves with a 200,000-seat deficit. Sixteen-thousand kids were being bused out of their neighborhood every day because of public school overcrowding. One half of LASD's 740,000 students were on an abbreviated school year of 163 days, as opposed to 180 days, because of overcrowding. Over the course of K-12, that's one full year a child doesn't spend in the classroom. There are three separate sessions in every school, which means some kids don't have summer vacation. Students can't participate in after-school activities. Parents can't participate and students get less time in the classroom. Because the schools are used year-round you couldn't get in and do major maintenance and the schools just wear out.

What kind of shape are the schools that need renovating in?

McConnell: Over the past three years, we've done a physical inspection of every one of our 12,000 facilities on 800 campuses. ... The average condition of our facilities is poor to critical. The average age of the buildings is about 50 years old. A facility that is critical has severe system deterioration, such as heating, air conditioning, roofing or electrical problems. There may be no air conditioning or insufficient power to power up today's technology. The structure might be deteriorating. And when you have something that is critical you have to act. About 20 percent of the 800 facilities are critical.

What was the first thing you thought to yourself when you got this job?

McConnell: I came to this job in April 2001. We all came in the post-Belmont era so the reputation of the district was very bad. The district was facing a crisis in overcrowding and physical deterioration of [its] facilities and we saw it as certainly a huge challenge but it was also an opportunity to do something that was socially redeeming ... something absolutely required and that was an important mission. We came motivated by the importance of the mission.

The biggest obstacle? We needed to build 150-160 new schools, that's essentially the San Diego school district that we had to build in LA. And we had to do it against national reputation that was horrible. We had to turn that reputation around and we didn't have the money to do it. So we knew we had to pass more bonds.

How did you regain the public's trust when the district's building program faced a $600 million deficit when you first took over?

McConnell: I was the first professional engineer ever to head the facilities department. Before that they always had well-intended administrators who were former schoolteachers, so the first thing we did was build a professional team. We have the best team in the nation today to build schools. I'm a retired Navy captain and was in the civil engineer corps in U.S. Navy and I brought seven other retired civil engineer corps captains to manage the operation. We all were trained in much the same way. We have the same experience; we are registered professional engineers and have 25-30 years in public construction. They are people who are proven leaders, who lead large public organizations and have a great deal of integrity.

After we built the team, we moved to build policies and procedures and systems to support the construction program, such as new IT systems and establishing our own procurement branch. We built a legal team to support construction and management team for fiscal controls. We became autonomous from the school districts. We don't try to fit what we are doing into the school district's business structure. We have a financial system to manage the capital dollars in the program.

What has been the toughest part of the construction job and how did you overcome it?

McConnell: This isn't just a construction program, but a development program. We define requirement, we find the land, we study the land environmentally, we buy the land, we clean the land, we design the job, we fund it, we award the contract and then we manage the construction. ... The toughest part has been regaining the public trust. We were swimming against a strong current of cynicism and skepticism and the press is still very cynical. [But] we have passed three bonds in the last three years. The last bond passed with 66 percent approval. It suggests we sustained solid support over three years. The toughest challenge is to convince the school district we can really do it.

How many schools have you already opened?

McConnell: It will be 54 schools since 2001, or about 13 a year. This year we delivered 32.

How are you managing to stay within budget?

McConnell: We build in construction contingencies. Although construction has gone up 10 percent a year, we have been able to keep pace. It's a function of effective program management.

In general, our estimates have been pretty accurate. We have had some colossal misses. Last year construction costs really peaked. There is a great uncertainty in the market right now as a result of Katrina and there are worldwide shortages in certain construction supplies, such as cement and lumber. So in the past year, prices have spiked in a way not even anticipated.

One project we estimated at $90 million came in at $130 million. That was the Central Los Angeles High School Number 11, which finished the old Belmont Learning Complex project. But we had enough in contingency to not have to cancel anything.

You have been criticized for almost doubling the department's employees and hiring more than 800 consultants. Are all those employees necessary?

McConnell: Well, we appreciate the support of the teachers' union on construction bonds, but we don't look to the teachers' union on how to manage this multi-billion dollar program. Yeah, absolutely they are essential. The alternative is to do that job with administrators who don't have the experience, or to hire permanent employees, who once hired you can't get rid of. So this is absolutely the most efficient way to build a professional staff and tailor that staff over time.

How are you approaching the controversial Belmont construction project?

McConnell: Roy Romer, school superintendent, said what a travesty the Belmont Learning Complex was. The public had invested $170 million in a project that was not completed. In his mind, the best way to get value for the public's cost was to finish the project and put kids in that school. He resolved to do that. I came along in April 2001 and we started to study the site in a way it hadn't been studied the first time. The problem on the Belmont site wasn't that it was on built on a landfill, or was on a polluted site, or had hazardous material, but it was built over an old oil field and we had to deal with by products of the oil field. This is what shut it down the first time, all the environmental concerns.

We did two studies. The good news was we had a minimal gas problem to deal with. ... The second study involved a sonic study of the ground. ... That's when we found a minor fissure that ran under two of the buildings. Now these kinds of cracks under the earth exist all over L.A.. But it was of sufficient concern that we decided to change our plan. ... We tore down two of the existing buildings; one was a wing of classrooms and one an administration building, because they were within 50 feet of the fault line. What remains is part of the current design for LA Central High School 11. The school will have 2,800 kids and then a separate academy of 500 kids. We had $170 million sunk into the first Belmont project and this will be another $160 million. Our estimate had come in at $90 million. The building will be delivered in 2007.

Does it put it to rest? Once we get finished it will absolutely be put to rest. ... The immediate community has been waiting for this school for 20 years and is very, very, supportive.

Was Measure Y that passed in November sufficient to finance the whole construction project or will you need more money?

McConnell: We have no plans in the foreseeable future to go back to the public for money. This program doesn't need any more money to get every child into a neighborhood school and back on to a traditional calendar year and to improve the safety and comfort of existing facilities. We have enough money to build 150-160 schools and to put $7.5 billion into the existing plant. Seven billion is not sufficient to raise all buildings to a good condition. You're never done in the modernization business.

What advice do you have for other districts with significant building programs?

McConnell: There's no substitute for knowing what you are doing.

With your experience, you seem like the perfect candidate to help rebuild New Orleans. Would you consider a position there?

McConnell: They haven't called. I'll cross that bridge if I come to it. I'd be flattered if called, but I think I'm on a fairly important mission in L.A. and am happy to be here.

Fran Silverman is a contributing editor.