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Audubon will be stuck in modulars for another year because of contractor’s error

Note: This story replaces an earlier version

The completion of Audubon Charter School’s permanent Broadway campus could be delayed by as much as a year due to construction problems, officials from the Orleans Parish School Board announced to a group of more than forty parents and board members Saturday.

Audubon’s pre-K through third-graders have been housed in modular classrooms at the old Jean Gordon Elementary School site in Gentilly since January 2012. They were slated to move to the renovated campus this summer. Instead, they’ll spend at least another year in the temporary buildings.

Problems with erection of the Broadway building’s steel frame, which is “non-conforming” and causing parts of the building to buckle and slope, could be problematic if it isn’t fixed before continuing construction, system Superintendent Stan Smith said during a presentation at a monthly board meeting of the Audubon board.

“The intent is to have a building structurally sound, and we’re not taking any compromises,” Smith told frustrated parents and board members. “In the worst case, the structural steel would have to be taken down. We’re in preparation to do that and try to solve these structural issues.”

The building needs to undergo “selective demolition” of existing construction in order to fix the problem, said Chris Young, architect for Blitch Knevel, the company hired by OPSB to review the work.

“It’s a very complicated area of steel framing,” Young said, as he pointed to a slide  presentation showing areas where steel supports around the main stairwell weren’t level.

Young said board officials discovered in September that the steel beams were not plumb in the stairwell, meaning that they lean out as much as an inch over the span of three floors, causing one floor to slope upwards and another to slope downwards.

After discovering that the floors weren’t parallel, officials wanted to further investigate to find any other potential structural problems — but they were roadblocked by the construction company, Young added.

“We have to find out what happened during erection of the steel frame,” Young said. “To do that, [you] have to tear down a lot of the construction to make sure that every steel column is straight and narrow and not deformed.”

F.H. Paschen, the construction company, would not remove enough brickwork necessary to expose all of the steel beams, Young said, instead making “peepholes” for the surveyors to inspect.

At the meeting, parents and board members demanded to know a “best- and worst-case scenario,” complaining that the school had been plagued by various building issues since coming back from Hurricane Katrina.

Smith said the best he could do right now was give an estimate, until the contractor agrees to let inspectors in — or until the issue goes to court.

“We’ve been pushing everyone aggressively to make a best and worst case scenario,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, to get to that point it takes everyone to dance, and at this point we can’t get the contractor to dance.”

Smith said his best estimate was “about a year,” to fix the construction problem, but that wasn’t contingent on what may have to happen legally.

He asked the board and parents to let the OPSB to come back with a full report.

Principal Janice Dupuy agreed to that, adding that the board should take as much time as necessary to make sure that the building is safe and properly constructed.

“Believe you me, I’m just as disappointed as you are,” Dupuy said. “I’m still trying to make peace with it. But the most important part of this to me is that we have a building that is safe for kids to go in.”

No academic programs should suffer as a result of the delay, she said Monday.

Some parents and other board members, however, complained that the school district had plenty of time to figure out what was going on, and expressed frustration that they were just hearing about the issue on Saturday.

“I’m driving two hours a day, and I want to know why we’re finding out about these delays three months late,” said Rachel Watts, the Montessori Vice-President for Audubon’s Parent-Teacher Organization.

Watts complained that it was now too late for her to send her child to another school.

Board member Gregory Thompson added that the OPSB had a history of communication problems, as well as issues with “managing expectations” of parents.

“I think that Audubon has been successful in spite of, not because of, OPSB,” Thompson said. “Up to this point OPSB has been more concerned with political infighting than with educating our children.”

He added that parents need to be given as much notice as possible for issues such as construction delays.

“If you think it’s going to take two years, then add another year to the project,” Thompson said. “You know there’s going to be a snafu. This is New Orleans, that’s what happens.”

Audubon will need to renew its lease on its temporary digs, which shouldn’t be a problem because no schools are scheduled to move into the modular buildings they’re now using on the Gordon campus, School Board Deputy Superintendent Kathleen Padian said Monday.s

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