A CITY AND SCHOOL DISTRICT UNITED
- By Sue Wasserman
- October 1st, 2004
Editor’s note: This program is being honored as a Grand Prize winner in SP&M’s First Annual Managing Excellence — Delivering Success Awards competition. The program entry can be viewed on page 38.
If, according to the poet John Dunne,no man is an island, it certainly holds true that no school or city is an island either. In the 1980s, however, in the midst of a major capital building project, neither the Seattle Public Schools nor City of Seattle recognized that.
Although I wasn’t involved in the same capacity at the time, the capital program begun in the mid 1980s covered 15 major schools with either renovations or replacement facilities, notes John Vacchiery, executive director of Facilities Planning and Enrollment for Seattle Public Schools. Vacchiery is responsible for managing the district’s capital improvements programs to improve schools throughout the district.
In that initial capital program, Vacchiery notes,there was no coordination between the school district and the city. We constantly found ourselves meeting about the same issues without achieving resolution. On one hand, we were at fault for not communicating our construction schedules with the city. On the other hand, we’d blame them for one thing or another, from taking too long to approve plans or changing requirements after plans had already been submitted. It was a difficult situation.
Fortunately for both the schools and the city, the times changed dramatically in a mannerthat supported both organizations. As we were gearing up for Building Excellence 1 (BEX1), our second capital building program, The Department of Construction and Land Use hired a new director, Vacchiery cites. Rick Krochalis hailed from the federal government and was recognized for his ability to create effective partnerships. In fact, he was instrumental in getting the city to look at partnering benefits. Vacchiery believes Mayor Norm Rice, a strong advocate for Seattle Public Schools, also played a key role in encouraging partnerships between the two seemingly disparate groups.
The overriding goal was for both groups to establish processes for managing a variety of building issues, Vacchiery says. These processes could then be carried through on all projects. We knew our lack of cooperation with each other impacted the communities in which we were working and serving. We wanted not just to show a united front, but to be a united front.
Recognizing the need for a strong communicator who could serve as a central contact and understand the needs and goals of the city and school district, the city hired long-time city employee Ovid Thompson in 1996. Not only was Thompson knowledgeable about city operations, he was also a strong Seattle schools supporter. My charge was to create a communication network that would enable both groups to work together as effectively and efficiently as possible.
One of his first orders of business was to establish monthly meetings between school construction managers and city regulatory agency personnel. Essentially, the city wanted the school district to get up to speed with city codes, know how many sets of plans had to be submitted for review and to whom, be consistent in presentations and understand the manner in which the city worked. The school district wanted more consistency in how and when plans were reviewed. The district also wanted to know the city agencies’ key contacts. In the course of teaching each entity what the other wanted, the two groups were able to refine the permitting process in a manner that achieved both organizations’ needs.
Under John’s leadership, the district committed to providing accurate, consistent documents for city review, comments Ralph Rohwer, vice president and project director of Heery International, the firm providing construction management services for BEX I (and now BEX II). Given the fact that many projects ran concurrently and involved multiple professionals, from engineers and architects to project managers, John’s task of coordinating communications to the city was not an easy one.
While compliance was foremost on everyone’s mind, challenges still arose. In the early phases of this partnership, I can remember inconsistencies regarding similar issues, Rohwer offers. Ovid, however, brought the agency and the issue to the table so that we could avoid the same problems in the future. We had school district managers, construction and project managers, the government agency and the agency’s customer service representatives working together. Issues were easily resolved once we understood where each other was coming from.
For his part, Thompson sees himself as a conduit, plugging the right people into the switchboard, guaranteeing the appropriate connections are made. Ovid does so many things, Vacchiery offers. I’m not sure there’s any one issue he’s addressed that stands out. Given the countless issues involved in any school building project, any one could blow up and delay the project. Thanks to Ovid, the district is now better able to establish realistic schedules, and the city is better able to meet its deadlines to keep those schedules on track. When new regulations or procedures are put into place, Thompson is certain to alert all parties.
Thanks to a greater knowledge of the process, the school district is also better able to communicate with the community. When we go to the public and the school board, Vacchiery adds, we are able to relay what is required of a particular project, the rules, regulations and processes, and the time frame required in which to do the best job possible.
The three are certain their efforts and the efforts of their dedicated colleagues within the school district, city and Heery International have played a key role in the capital programs’ successes. The success of BEX1 did much to change mindsets within the city, Thompson notes. In fact, BEX2 passed on the first time around by the greatest majority ever.
Because of his role walking the line between the two parties, Thompson sees the answer clearly. The bottom line, Thompson emphasizes, is that we’re all here working to improve the lives and educations of our Seattle students. The truth is that the city isn’t always right, and the school district isn’t always right. Once we understand that simple truth, it’s easier to work to resolve the differences so that our students and communities can be the ultimate beneficiaries.