Bolandi: Renovation deal at hand

School board votes in favor of direct negotiations with bonding company

By: Kip Berman
   HIGHTSTOWN – Schools Superintendent Ron Bolandi says he is confident a deal is imminent to complete the long-delayed renovations of the Perry L. Drew Elementary School and the Melvin H. Kreps Middle School by March while enclosing an unfinished school by February.
   "I know we’re going to have a deal by the end of the week," he said Tuesday. "If not, the next step is litigation."
   Hot meals for students at the two schools are also imminent, according to the superintendent.
   On Monday night, the East Windsor Regional school board voted 9-0 to authorize Mr. Bolandi to enter into direct negotiations with Ohio Casualty, the bonding company for work on three schools contracted to TriRidge Construction. Mr. Bolandi said Robbie MacPherson, the board’s construction attorney, will continue to handle the actual negotiations, but the board’s action allows the superintendent to finalize the deal.
   "The main thing is Ohio Casualty is part of this. That was our goal from the beginning," said Mr. Bolandi.
   "(Ohio) needs to agree they’ll be out by March; everything needs to be done by March. They need to take the project over."
   TriRidge, of Ridgewood, was hired to perform $9.8 million worth of renovations to Kreps, $3.5 million in renovations to Drew and about $8 million to build an elementary school next the Ethel McKnight Elementary School, according to Business Administrator David Shafter. Ohio Casualty is essentially the insurance company for that work.
   The school board — citing construction delays which forced Drew to open two days late — fired TriRidge in late September. The next month, TriRidge canceled its contract, claiming fraud, mismanagement and nonpayment of bills on the part of the district.
   Last month, Mr. MacPherson said the district had rejected two proposals from TriRidge to complete the work because Ohio Casualty had not offered to back those plans.
   It is unclear whether TriRidge might return as general contractor or a new company would be hired. That decision, Mr. Bolandi said, is up to Ohio Casualty.
   "They have the right to pick who they want, but we’re hoping to get crews in by next week," he said.
   He also made clear that while March is the target date for completion, the cafeterias should be operational much sooner.
   "The kitchen (at Kreps) is less than a couple weeks away. … At Drew it will take at least a month," he said.
   Due to the unfinished cafeteria kitchens, students at Kreps and Drew have been eating cold lunches since the start of the school year. But starting Monday, Mr. Bolandi said, hot meals will prepared in advance at Hightstown High School and transported to Kreps and Drew, where they will be reheated.
   The announcement came as frustration among some parents was beginning to show. Victoria Fredrick, vice president of the Drew Elementary PTA, and parent of a second- and fourth-grader there, articulated three primary concerns with the ongoing construction at her children’s school.
   "The school isn’t finished and there is no physical education area as the cold weather comes," she said. "The children have been eating the same thing since the beginning of school. … (and there’s) no heat or air conditioning in the hallways.
   Board President Ricardo Perez responded by saying the board shares the frustration.
   "There’s not a single person up here that does not agree with your sentiments," he said. "It’s not fair and not right that the children aren’t getting everything they should."
   Ms. Fredrick explained later that she didn’t blame the board for the delays but felt it important to vocalize her concerns to those in a position to effect change.
   [vmo: could be cut: ]"A lot of parents have a lot of trust for our principal and Mr. Bolandi, but it always helps to speak directly (to them)," she said.
   She also voiced concern that, if such delays occurred with the previous contractor, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening again.
   According to Mr. Bolandi, the major work that still needs to be completed at Drew comprises the cafeteria, gymnasium, flooring and heating and ventilation. At Kreps, there is still work that needs to be completed on the auditorium, four science rooms, the art room and the front of the building. Both schools have numerous "punch-list" items that need to be addressed before the work could be deemed complete.
   As for the new school next to the Ethel McKnight school, Mr. Bolandi said the potential deal would result in the enclosure of the building, the roof of which is about half complete, by February. The school is scheduled to open in September 2006.
   Mr. Bolandi relayed to the Herald on Thursday afternoon that a deal had not been reached but he remained optimistic it could happen Friday.
   Representatives of Ohio Casualty and TriRidge could not be reached for comment.