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Schools modernization project is in trouble 

Since work began in 2006, the Rochester school district's $1.2 billion project to overhaul and modernize its buildings has been scaled up and whittled down. It's gone through four superintendents and three mayors. Design plans have started, stopped, changed, and started again.

Undoubtedly the biggest challenge in a construction project this size is keeping it from becoming silage for political and financial mayhem. Rochester may not have succeeded in that goal. It came out last week that there's an FBI investigation into the project's $325 million first phase, and there are growing differences of opinion about whether the second phase should be postponed, as a result.

A delay would have multiple ramifications, but it's fair to say that most of the misfortune would be borne by the people who the project is supposed to help: city students and their families.

"It took seven years and four superintendents to get the first phase going," says Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas. "I'm hoping this doesn't take another seven years."

State legislation authorizing the project's second phase has been drafted, but not submitted. And with only days left in the current legislative session, time is running out.

Indications that the project was in trouble surfaced shortly after Mayor Lovely Warren took office earlier this year. Internal audits of the project's first phase raised serious questions about costs and supervision. Warren and other city officials charged the Rochester Joint Schools Construction Board with shoddy oversight.

And City Council President Loretta Scott asked the State Comptroller's Office to investigate whether the project was meeting compliance standards for hiring women and minority contractors. The comptroller's office did not pursue the matter, and it's not clear what exactly the FBI is investigating.

School Board President Van White says it would be prudent to temporarily put the legislation for phase two of the project on hold. (The school board has no involvement with the schools modernization project.)

"We should at least know what's gone wrong so we don't repeat those mistakes," he says.

But Vargas says a delay would cause serious problems for the district.

"I can't be left in limbo here," he says. "I do respect the concerns that others may have, but we need to move forward for the sake of our students, our families, and this city."

According to the district's website, there are nine city schools in the project's first phase that are in various stages of construction. Some, such as School 58 and School 28, are expanding with major additions. Construction on others such as School 50 is complete. And there are more than 20 schools slated for major renovations in the second phase of the project.

Some schools will straddle multiple stages of construction before all of the work is completed. The entire project consists of four phases.

Delaying the second phase would undoubtedly drive costs up; costs have increased dramatically since the project began. Delaying would also open the door to yet more costly design changes. For example, School 16, while not originally part of phase two, was added after aggressive lobbying by residents.

And a delay would create a logistical nightmare for district administrators, parents, and students since many students are attending school in alternative locations while their home schools are being renovated.

But more than anything else, Vargas says, the modernization program is critical to keeping students and families in the city by providing schools that are modern, clean, and designed to support math, science, music, art, and sports. Since the district has become the principal source of meals for many city students, modernizing kitchens and food preparation areas is long overdue, he says.

And even Vargas's strategy to improve student achievement through expanded learning would be undermined with another delay, he says. Many students are now in school for longer hours, and will attend school during the summer months.

"I've insisted that we have air conditioning in those buildings because our kids need it during the summer months," he says.

Most city schools do not have air conditioning.

Vargas says that one of his main goals as superintendent is to increase stability in the district. The district's parents have had to cope with a school environment that has been in a state of constant flux for years, he says.

"I have to give our students more stability," he says. "You do that through building renovations that protect the interests of our students."

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