SED creates 'pre-screening' phase for capital projects

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • December 11, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

As part of a fresh effort to speed the approval process for capital projects, the State Education Department (SED) has established a new "pre-screening" phase. The goal is to ensure that all projects are fully ready for review before they are scrutinized by SED's Office of Facilities Planning.

The procedural change is the latest in a string of efforts to permanently reduce delays that have plagued the review process for several years. The causes have included SED staff shortages and state restrictions on funding and approvals for hiring. More recently, the pipeline for approval has been crowded with projects approved in local capital project referendums and funded through the Smart Schools Bond Act.

"The economy is better, more districts are passing project votes, and the amount of projects being submitted has grown," department officials said in a response to questions from On Board.

Approximately 1,630 projects were submitted for review in 2014, followed by 1,800 in 2015, according to the department. The total number of projects submitted grew to about 2,000 each year in 2016 and 2017.

Some 800 plans are awaiting full review and approval from SED's staff of architects and engineers, according to department officials. The wait time from submission to final approval was estimated at 12 to 30 weeks (about 3 to 7.5 months), depending on the project scope and on how close to complete each project plan was at the time it was submitted.

The new pre-screening phase took effect for projects submitted on or after Sept. 28. The process will be supervised by the new head of the Facilities Planning Office, Rosanne Groff.

Jhone Ebert, SED's senior deputy commissioner for education policy, said in a memo to superintendents that the new process will help to ensure that SED project managers, architects and engineers "do not need to spend their limited time tracking down missing or incomplete information."

Michael Coghlan, director of facilities for the Horseheads Central School District and current president of the New York State School Facilities Association, said members of his association appreciate the latest procedural changes.

"We support them 100 percent," he said.

He said the expected long delays had encouraged contractors and consultants to rush to get projects into SED's queue and worry about filling any gaps in required paperwork later. But incomplete paperwork made the review process even less efficient, Coghlan said.

SED has created checklists of paperwork and technical submission requirements to help with the determination of whether a project submission is "complete and ready for review," enabling the project to receive a review number and a spot in the queue awaiting final review.

If pre-screeners determine that a submission is incomplete, they are to notify applicants by email and ask for any missing information.

Previous efforts to speed capital project reviews have included plans to add staff.

In April 2015, a $800,000 cash infusion from the state budget was expected to enable the department to hire engineers, architects and other professionals to start whittling down a backlog of more than 900 projects. But the impact was limited.

"We have not been able to make measurable progress in hiring additional staff," SED said in an email to On Board.

In 2016, the department hired third-party vendors to perform engineering reviews under a special procurement program. That did reduce the waiting list for a while, until the money allocated for the work was tapped out, officials said.

Meanwhile, SED also is working on a mechanism to expedite a phase of the review process that evaluates building code compliance by outsourcing that phase for some types of plans. Districts could choose whether or not to use that option and pay an additional fee.

In communications with local district officials earlier this year, Christina Coughlin, now an assistant commissioner in the Office of School Governance, Policy and Religious and Independent Schools, outlined the code review outsourcing plan. Coughlin described the response to an initial RFP (request for proposals) as "tepid," but she said department officials were optimistic that a revised request would prove more attractive to outside architects and engineers.

Projects to be funded under the $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act have contributed some to the additional project review workload at SED, officials said. Most Smart Schools projects are blended with other district projects, expanding their scope, officials said.

The Smart Schools Review Board, which is made up of representatives from the State Education Department, the SUNY system and the state Division of Budget, has approved a total of 427 plans totaling $398 million for 322 school districts and 20 special education schools.

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