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Levy changes school construction rules to cut costs

Rules, schmules.

That’s the message Schools Chancellor Harold Levy sent when he announced last week several changes to reduce the cost of school construction in the city, including trashing 2,500 pages of design and materials standards used to build city schools.

Other changes on the table included increasing classroom space in new schools, leasing existing structures for schools as opposed to new construction and streamlining School Construction Authority and city Board of Education procedures to attract more contractors to building schools.

Levy announced the changes at a news conference at Board of Education headquarters last week. The changes came after the 14-member Commission on the Capital Plan, created by Levy in December with the mission of finding construction cost-cutting measures, issued its report. At least one member of the commission, construction consultant Joseph Monaco of Douglaston, was from Queens.

With major governance changes on the horizon for city schools, including the possible elimination of local school boards and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed takeover of the system, the high cost of school construction in the city has been seen as a glaring failure.

Extreme funding problems plaguing the Board of Education since last year have added fuel to those who criticize the board. With construction costs of new city schools ranging between $425 and $450 per square foot, the New York City Board of Education and its construction arm, the School Construction Authority, have been viewed as inept.

The School Construction Authority was established by the state Legislature in 1988 and is overseen by a board of three trustees, made up of Levy, an appointee of the mayor and the governor. Though the SCA was created as an independent authority to design and construct new schools in the city, the agency acts as a client of the Board of Education and only constructs new schools when the board determines specifics for a particular location.

After nearly six months of work, Levy’s commission found that changes in the construction rules, materials and procedures could reduce that cost by 25 percent to 30 percent to between $300 and $325 per square foot.

Peter Lehrer, co-founder of Lehrer, McGovern and Opus Three Ltd., a Manhattan construction management firm, chaired the commission.

“It is indisputable that schools in the city cost too much to build,” Lehrer said.

Levy said the changes constituted “taking the 2,500 rule book and throwing it in the trash.”

Monaco, a 15-year resident of Douglaston who recently moved to Douglas Manor, is a retired construction consultant and professional engineer who worked extensively with city government before retiring a few years ago. He voiced concern that the commission’s changes might not be utilized.

“Let’s hope that something happens with it,” he said. “The timing is right.”

While the 2,500 pages of rules were not the whole problem behind high construction costs, Monaco said, they are an issue.

“It’s about evaluating whether or not they make sense any longer,” he said.

The Board of Ed has been fighting a severe budget crunch for more than a year after a $2.3 billion construction budget gap was revealed in June 2001. The budget deficit meant the city had run out of funding in the second year of a five-year capitol plan that included school construction and repair projects from 2000 to 2004.

Earlier this year, as the city faced a deficit of about $4.5 billion, Bloomberg asked the Board of Ed to slash nearly $700 million from its budget.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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