Millennium high school beset by delays

By Tom Joyce

July 2, 2014

When Millennium Charter Academy officials awarded a construction contract last fall for launching a new high school component to a company that wasn’t the low bidder, a chief reason was its promise the work would be done by August.

As it turns out that company, Omega Construction Inc., will not be able to meet the August timetable, but a member of the school’s governing board said the firm is not to blame.

Omega Construction was awarded the job to complete the 12,000-square-foot expansion rather than the low bidder, J.G. Coram Co. Inc. Original bid documents showed that Coram’s proposal, one of three submitted by contractors for the project, was nearly $100,000 lower than that of Omega.

The awarding of the project to Omega further raised eyebrows because one of its officials sits on the charter school’s board of directors.

But the contract decision was defended in part because Omega had pledged to have the new facilities ready for the academy’s first high-school students when classes resume in mid-August for the next school year.

“We have students showing up in August,” Christopher Willingham, a Millennium board member who served on a high school facilities committee that spearheaded the bid process, said at the time. “And this thing has got to be ready to go.”

FEMA Delay

But on Tuesday, Willingham said the project has been delayed due to an error on a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floodplain map of the area where the campus sits.

He explained that the map did not reflect grading work that had been done at the site which elevated it above floodplain level. “And we had to go through the process of FEMA making the change.”

Yet that in turn put the brakes on other bureaucratic processes required, including the release of a U.S. Department of Agriculture-guaranteed loan to finance the construction and the city of Mount Airy’s granting of a permit for the project.

This prevented the work from beginning until May, Willingham continued, and even then Omega placed its crews and other resources there at an enormous risk. “We got funded last week,” he said of the delay in getting construction capital in hand.

“They (Omega) committed a lot of money out there with no guarantee,” Willingham said of the company’s decision to do so without the funding actually being received. “They had a lot of money out there on the project even though we didn’t have our funding secured yet.”

Willingham praised the company for proceeding with the project in order to be finished near the start of classes for the 2014-2015 school term. “They made this work for two months without funding,” he said of the construction start in May.

The board member said such flexibility offered by Omega — which has handled previous construction work at the campus on Old Springs Road — was another reason the board of directors chose it for the job.

Millennium Charter Academy officials had noted several weeks ago that the first-phase high-school expansion would not be ready for students until October.

“Right now it looks like they are looking for an early September delivery of the building,” Willingham updated Tuesday. This means that the project’s completion will be delayed by only about three weeks instead.

Willingham said the October date was voiced due to the addition of a glass front to the building, which was expected to mean a further delay. However, Omega was able to pull some strings and get the materials needed for that facet on site much sooner than anticipated, he said.

He acknowledged that the decision to add the glass front at the building was not part of the original base bid for the project. But that was the only major change other than “small modifications” that tend to be a part of any construction project, Willingham said.

A six-month window had been set aside for the actual construction, and Omega should be able to complete it in around four months, the board member said.

“They have been able to pull off something just short of a miracle.”

Willingham said that existing space elsewhere at Millennium Charter Academy will be set aside for the newly arriving high-schoolers to occupy until their facilities are completed.

He indicated that academy officials have done their best to complete the project on time and credited the role of Omega Construction in pursuing that goal.

“I mean, I have to say that even though it’s not going to be ready in August, with some of the problems we’ve had I could not be happier with the fact we ended up with Omega.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.