Many school districts are moving forward with capital projects large and small in the coming months. At both ends of the spectrum, many districts are hoping to gain financial and logistical benefits by engaging construction managers / general contractors (“CM/GC”) early in the process. This is a great time to discuss some good practices to keep in mind with these types of projects.

Procurement

If the district is involved in the procurement phase of a CM/GC process, you must keep in mind that different rules apply than in the traditional design-bid-build phase. First and foremost, the district should make sure to follow the requirements of Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 279C.337 to the letter. This statute requires that the school district conduct certain investigations, and that the school board make certain express findings on the record, in order to prepare a CM/GC request for proposals for publication. These include establishing criteria for evaluating proposals, identifying the anticipated savings and efficiencies from employing the CM/GC process, and confirming the rules that the district will follow in the process.

Next, the district should familiarize itself with the model rules adopted by the Attorney General under ORS 279A.065. The district should confirm the rules under Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR) 137-049-0600 and following. Here, there is little room for improvisation. Generally, the district should simply make sure to work its way through all of the detailed requirements of the statutes and rules, and ensure compliance.

Contract stage

After a provider is identified, the district has greater leeway to customize the terms of the work and the relationship between the construction manager / general contractor, as well as the rest of the project team, which may consist of the district, and owner’s representative, an architect, and perhaps other professionals. Here, the district’s priority should be to clearly delineate the responsibilities of each party, and the specific cycle for a project. By taking the time to negotiate a workflow among all of the project team members who guide design and planning squarely through the process, from one professional to the next and back again through the cycle, the district will make sure no party steps on another party’s toes. This not only ensures the orderly flow of feedback and integration into the next iteration of the process, but also ensures that each team member gets to have their rightful say on their respective parts of the project.

In Oregon, there is a time limit for a school district, or any property owner, to raise concerns with its contractors about potentially faulty construction workmanship. Pursuant to Oregon Revised Statutes 12.135(2), a school district as a public body has 10 years from “substantial completion” of a construction project to file a claim against a contractor for faulty construction workmanship. This is an absolute outlier date, called a statute of repose. No claims may be brought beyond that date, unless a contractor or product manufacturer agrees to an extended warranty.

Within those 10 years, other deadlines apply. Recently, the Oregon Supreme Court made important decisions which affect those other deadlines, called statutes of limitations. In Goodwin v. Kingsmen Plastering, Inc., 359 Or 694 (2016), the Supreme Court ruled that a school district has just two years to file a claim against a contractor for negligent or faulty construction workmanship, measured from when it “knew or should have known” of “the injuries or damage that form the basis of their claims.” In the complicated field of building performance, two years is not a lot of time for facilities professionals to recognize and diagnose performance issues. Compounding the difficulty, the Supreme Court’s decision may start the clock from when the District’s facilities professionals first start noticing problems, for example problems with a buoyant gymnasium floor, an underperforming HVAC system, or leaking windows. Even with outside assistance, it can take a lot of investigation to determine who may be at fault for a problem, and therefore what contractor may be the subject of a claim. In the meantime, potentially, the clock may be ticking under Goodwin while investigations are underway.

An unfortunate side effect of the Goodwin decision is that it increases the pressure on school districts to investigate and make claims against contractors. To protect themselves, school districts should advise their facilities professionals to be diligent in reporting concerns. If a concern is reported, school districts should reach out to contractors who may potentially be involved and ideally sign “tolling agreements,” stopping the clock on claims while investigations continue. If contractors are not amendable to this, they may put themselves in the position of forcing a claim process with the school district.

This issue of “discovering” a claim may also come up with respect to claims for breach of contract. Currently, the safe bet is that a school district has six years from the date a contract obligation is breached to raise a claim. That is typically understood to be the date of performance, i.e. the date of faulty work itself, not the date any damage or fault is discovered (when the district discovers symptoms of a problem). In the months ahead, the Oregon Supreme Court may consider expanding the concept of “discovery” to contract claims, which may provide some relief to school districts already under increasing pressure to investigate problems and pursue contractors who may be at fault.

Over the next few years, school districts across the state will spend millions on construction and renovations. It is an exciting time; schools are testing new products, new building control systems, and new methods and components. Since facilities managers are responsible for operating these systems for years to come, they have several things to consider if called on to help select or operate a new system. Facilities managers should make sure that any problems are quickly addressed by the manufacturer, design team, or construction team, so that those responsible will be accountable for the continued performance of the property.

What is the product history?

New roofing materials, energy efficient materials, and window systems are coming to market every year. Have project team members used them before? Has the architect met with the manufacturer, or any other school that has used the materials, to determine if this product is a good fit? The right roof for the Bend-La Pine School District may not be the right roof for the Salem-Keizer School District. If your District is going to be the guinea pig when evaluating a new product or system, at least make sure everyone knows that, and takes all reasonable precautions.

What is the expectation for maintenance and tune-ups?

If other project members have prior experience with the system, what have they learned? Facilities managers should be sure to document operation recommendations they receive, and establish a checklist for following them. Likewise, facilities managers should be sure to review operations manuals for new construction.

What if you see a problem?

If a system is not performing, document the problem and contact the manufacturer and installer. If you are not satisfied with their response, you can also reach out to the original design and installation team for support. Often, the problem may not be with the product or system itself, but how it is used with related products or systems. Document your efforts.

If the problem is still unresolved, talk with your administrators about the District’s rights under its warranties and contracts. Ultimately, everyone’s job is to keep the school facility up and running to support the faculty, staff, and students. Most often, the strength of a claim is established by the actions of facilities managers and school administrators long before a dispute or claim arises. With advanced planning and frank talk with project team members, Districts will enjoy their new investments for decades to come.