Port Neches-Groves new school construction delayed; heated meeting follows disappointing news

Published 12:34 am Wednesday, April 13, 2022

PORT NECHES — Two Port Neches-Groves Independent School District intermediate schools scheduled to open for the upcoming school year won’t be ready until 2023.

The news was delivered this week to audibly angry district administrators and school board members.

“There’s times when I drive by there and I find it difficult to find one person walking around,” said Superintendent Mike Gonzales. “These are the concerns that I have. These are the concerns that I’ve had. And now we’re put in a very difficult position.”

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His comments came after Colby Rose of Cadence McShane Construction Company, updated district leaders on the two facilities under construction at the Woodcrest Elementary site and the former West Groves Education Center site.

Also in attendance at the monthly board meeting was Gary Whittle, project management director for CBRE Heery, who frequently attends to give updates on the $130 million bond issue passed in 2019 to consolidate seven existing schools into four new buildings.

Rose said subcontractors for the intermediate schools plan to begin work on the facilities’ second floor by next month.

Both sites, he said, were awaiting the delivery of structural steel, as well as generators, which last week were delayed from May 1 to the end of May.

“Overall making progress, not the progress we would like to make,” he said. “Right now we are looking at a…certificate to occupy the building in October.”

Board President Scott Bartlett said the district has been questioning progress for months and was told time frames had been adjusted to remain on schedule.

“What changed? Because I had doubts in January, to be quite honest with you,” he said. “But I was just being fed what I wanted to hear, is what I feel like. And now we’re to this point where all of a sudden the earliest we’re looking at is mid-semester before we could get these kids over there. And we’ll make adjustments. But what’s the big change all of a sudden? We’re still dealing with steel problems?”

Whittle spoke at previous board meetings about the escalating cost of materials, saying they have various methods of remaining “on track.”

“We were notified of the issue in October,” Gonzales said Monday at the monthly board meeting. “Not only did we think that we had that issue resolved and that the steel would be here in December, we actually paid a pretty penny to get that steel here on time…to prevent this from occurring. But here we are a few months later, right exactly where we didn’t want to be.”

Halfway through the update, the timeline changed.

“Every month our confidence got a little less, but it’s not in our nature to give up,” Whittle said. “We continued to work hard to make that Aug. 10 date. Standing here today, the October date is — again — achievable. If I’m being completely candid, a January date or end of the year date is more realistic.”

Trustee Brandon Cropper called it “more smokescreen.”

“We’ve gotten a false narrative this whole time,” he said. “Our narrative couldn’t be controlled because…you couldn’t report your narrative to give us the right information. There are 132 million reasons why we need to be transparent with our community. This isn’t a $100,000 baseball stand. (They are) 70-year schools in this community.”

RELATED: Updates given on intermediate campus construction schedule for Port Neches & Groves

The expected lifespan of the buildings was something Deputy Superintendent Julie Gauthier mentioned when saying work by generators was not an option.

“Our taxpayers are putting a lot of money into this. We are not doing anything on generator power. This is the most humid time in our community — this time of year — and you’re going to try to paint the walls or put siding up on generator power?

“We want full power or nothing is painted, nothing is done,” Gauthier said. “The last thing we want is our people coming to us in a few months to say the paint is peeling. That’s not acceptable for us and it’s certainly not acceptable for our taxpayers.”

Whittle said it’s the first time in his career with CBRE that a deadline was missed.

“I will share with you personally, this is a very tough thing for me and for CBRE,” he said. “This isn’t OK. We don’t miss deadlines.”

He added the district has been cooperative throughout the process.

“Every time we’ve asked…for a decision, for approval, for a contract, for a check, whatever that is, the district has responded faster than any district we’ve worked with,” he said. “None of this could have been controlled by the district.”

Rose said “many missed days” was the reason given by subcontractors for the missed deadline.

“Our taxpayers supported us to build incredible schools,” Gauthier said. “Our kids, our community, everybody deserves this. We pass by there all the time and there are two operation speeds on your site — slow and slower. And that’s so frustrating. For us in the school business, we have 187 days to make an impact. It is get in there; give it all you’ve got for 187 days. And we haven’t seen that on one of your days. Y’all are going to go away, but we live here.”

Gauthier also said Cadence McShane is not the construction company overseeing the two primary schools scheduled to open for the 2023-2024 school year.

Those contracts were awarded at the February board meeting to Sedalco Construction Services.

Whittle said there are “some contractual opportunities” for the district to recover some funds.