The Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) has finalized a major transition in its troubled construction program, completing the switch to a new bond manager and project inspector. After a brief pause, construction is expected to resume by Monday at the latest.
“It’s a total success,” School Board President Mary Wells told the Courier about the transition.
Voters in Beverly Hills have approved two bond measures to fund large-scale improvements to facilities in the district’s schools, Measure E in 2008 and Measure BH in 2018. Together, the measures add up to over half a billion dollars for modernization, seismic retrofits, new buildings, and improved security.
But nearly from the outset, the bond programs have struggled to deliver on promises on time or on budget, resulting in multiple changes in management. In 2017, the district brought on Team Concept Development Services (TCDS) to take over for the previous bond manager. But within a few years, the board lost confidence in TCDS and its owner, Don Blake, especially after TCDS reported a budgetary shortfall of nearly $90 million.
Additionally, members of the board raised concerns over the transparency of Blake’s practices and his billing rates.
The board solicited a new round of proposals to take over the bond program in February and selected Fondar-Salari, Inc.
The contract with TCDS officially ended July 17, passing the reigns to Fondar-Salari. However, because the inspector of record for the construction projects was hired directly by TCDS–an atypical arrangement, Wells says – the district “voluntarily stopped work” on construction while the California Division of the State Architect (DSA) approved the new inspector.
DSA is the state body that oversees construction for K-12 schools and requires a licensed inspector to ensure compliance with state regulations and standards throughout the various stages of construction.
In most cases, Wells said, DSA inspectors are hired independently of the company managing the bond program. Because the inspector was hired directly through TCDS, when the district went out for a new bond manager, it also needed to find a new inspector. The board put out a request and received 13 “very qualified responses” from firms that provide inspection services.
Owing to a “transition issue between the architects and the inspectors of record,” DSA requested that the district cease construction while it approved the new inspector. Wells clarified that this request did not constitute a Stop Work Order, “which is a very specific order,” and the district complied.
The process of approving the new inspector took less than 72 hours, according to a statement released by School Superintendent Dr. Michael Bregy.
“It is a true achievement that this transition took less than 72 hours, and we thank DSA for their partnership in expediting this matter,” Bregy said. “Fonder-Salari, Inc. has been on-site daily, and we look forward to continued updates from them to our community.”
Wells raised concerns with the Courier over the rates charged by TCDS for inspection services. Under Blake, the district paid $185 an hour for a single inspector, Michael Barbera. In the last fiscal year, that amounted to a bill of nearly half a million dollars.
Not only did this rate exceed standard market prices for similar services, according to Wells, but it also greatly exceeded the rate the district paid Barbera for similar work years prior. The difference, in that case, was company contracting Barbera. In 2016, Knowland Construction charged the district $82 an hour for inspection services by Barbera for an estimated total of $14,500, according to documents reviewed by the Courier.
Even as recently as 2019, the district paid just $94 an hour for inspection services in an agreement with Knowland, documents show.
The new inspector brought on this week will cost the district $98 an hour, roughly half what the district paid under the former construction manager.
But Wells says that her objective is not to get bogged down in history.
“My goal is not to focus on the past,” she said. “My goal is to finish.”