Meeker school remains closed due to stuctural issues
State agency to investigate other projects including Craig Middle School
November 21, 2011
Meeker — The new grade school sits empty up Sulphur Creek Road.
The doors are locked. A sign taped to the window tells delivery drivers to take their packages elsewhere.
Children attended classes in the $18.9 million building for an entire school year before it was deemed unsafe to occupy — the result of mistakes by the company that designed and built it, a state agency that missed a glaring error and local school officials who kept the building open despite repeated warnings, The Denver Post has found.
The first sign that something was wrong came in October 2010, when dirt piled outside the gym caused a wall to lean a few inches.
When Meeker School District RE-1 finally brought in an outside firm to review the structural integrity of the school nine months later, much deeper problems became apparent: The school had been designed with a building-code standard used for storage sheds and was at risk of collapse in severe weather.
The Neenan Co., the Fort Collins design-and-build firm the district hired, has acknowledged making mistakes and pledged to pay for repairs.
School district officials, meanwhile, say they are committed to safety and careful oversight.
But already, reverberations are being felt well beyond this no-stoplight town of 2,500. Two state agencies are reviewing other Neenan school projects, including work in eight districts financed with $150 million in state money.
Over little more than a decade, Neenan has built or upgraded nearly 100 schools in Colorado, most in rural districts.
And the failures in Meeker invite questions about the state's ability to spot whether other schools were designed to safety standards.
Building in Meeker
Meeker is in the White River Valley, at the gateway to the Flat Tops Wilderness in the northwest part of the state. Ranchers here gather before 6 a.m. at Go-Fer Foods for coffee, and bright orange banners welcome elk hunters in the fall.
The town is subject to the boom-and-bust cycle of oil and gas, and things were booming in 2008 — prompting the school district to get serious about its aging, overcrowded elementary school built in the 1930s.
The district sought bids for an assessment of its buildings, but the two that came back were too high, said Dan Evig, the superintendent at the time.
Then, Evig said, one of his principals attended a Colorado Association of School Executives conference and met a representative of the Neenan Co.
The Fort Collins-based business was founded in 1973 by David Neenan, a big thinker who survived a near- bankruptcy and reinvented his company with a term he trademarked — "archistruction" — that consolidates development, design and construction.
Neenan branched into school projects in the late 1990s and soon found its niche: rural Colorado schools lacking the know-how to finance and build big-capital projects.
In Meeker, Neenan's traveling salesman for school projects, Don Weidinger, became a presence at meetings and functions — even a bull sale at the school board president's cattle ranch.
He made a convincing case. In April 2008, the district hired Neenan for an assessment of its school buildings and a schematic design, complete with guaranteed cost information so school officials could take concrete information to voters.
The contract required the district to pay Neenan $9,500 for the study if it did not ultimately select the company as its school designer and builder.
Seven months later, Meeker voters approved a $24 million bond issue for the new elementary school and fixes at the middle and high schools.
The district first fielded bids to hire an owner's representative to oversee the project.
A divided board chose Jim West of Vanir Construction Management Inc., who had worked on two other Neenan school projects. The district signed a $218,360 contract for West's services and expenses.
West's ties to Neenan bothered Ben Rogers, a school board member at the time.
"As far as I was concerned, he was an insider," Rogers said.
West told The Post he has worked with many different contractors and does not think working with Neenan "prejudiced my opinion in any way."
Shortly after hiring West, the district handed the design and construction contract to Neenan — without putting it out to competitive bid.
Meeker school Superintendent Susan Goettel said the district decided to hire a company that could offer both design and construction and then chose Neenan without a competitive bid — which it has discretion to do — because of limited options in the area.
Rogers, however, said at least one other company expressed interest. And Neenan has faced competition for other school projects.
Meeker school board president Mary Strang declined to respond to questions for this story, saying the district's attorney recommended the superintendent alone do the talking.
"We are part of the school district," Strang said. "We stand together, and that's where we are."
Calls to other school board members were not returned.
"There are a lot of disappointed people who spent a lot of money, put a lot of faith in the school board," said Michele Morgan, a Meeker parent and innkeeper. "The board has to take the heat."
Earlier this month, Strang was voted off the Meeker school board after more than two decades. Another incumbent, Ed Coryell, also was ousted. Voter turnout set a record.
Safety concerns surface
Meeker Elementary School had been open seven weeks when roofers doing maintenance work on Oct. 4, 2010, found something amiss: dirt piled against the outside of a gym wall had caused the wall to shift.
Roof-joist seats connected to the top of the precast wall had failed, according to a letter Neenan sent to the Colorado Department of Public Safety. The gym was closed for more than a month while Neenan made repairs and built a retaining wall to push soil away from the building.
To make sure the repair was sound, the district hired a third-party structural engineer, Luke Studer of Steamboat Springs. Studer eventually signed off on the gym fix, which was covered under Neenan's two-year warranty.
But something else caught his attention, the engineer said in an interview with The Post.
Studer noticed that details in the gym roof were similar to those in the rest of the building.
And he couldn't figure out how the design would resist "lateral loads" — forces from the side. High winds and earthquakes are the most likely forces. Heavy snow piling up on one side of a roof is another.
In a well-designed building, the force from a lateral load is transferred from the point of pressure to the braces and beams, spreading the load through the building.
"It looked wrong," Studer said of the Neenan design. "Then ensued a long period of heavy discussion."
On Nov. 4, 2010, Studer wrote to Superintendent Goettel expressing concern and urging her to get more information from Neenan.
Unsatisfied with the company's response, Studer recommended Dec. 16 that the district hire a larger engineering firm to review the school's design.
Neenan's structural engineer, Gary Howell, struck back. In a Jan. 17 letter, Howell accused Studer of "ungrounded assessments" and "unjustified recommendations."
He also accused Studer of straying beyond what he was asked to review and violating the Structural Engineers Association of Colorado's code of ethics by impugning a fellow engineer's work.
Howell made clear that Neenan did not recommend a review of the building and would not pay for it.
The two engineers continued their pointed back-and-forth into the spring.
Studer went so far as to call one part of the building — a single brace in the middle of a long corridor — "a giant
'teeter- totter.' "
But Howell, in late May, continued to insist Neenan "asserts the building is stable and safe to occupy."
At a school board meeting in June, West, the district's owner representative, questioned why Neenan did not have information readily available to answer Studer's concerns.
West told the board that in his past experiences with Neenan, the company had been responsive and willing to make changes and fixes.
Finally, in mid-July, Meeker School District RE-1 hired Structural Consultants Inc. of Denver to review the structural integrity of the grade school.
The findings, laid out in an Aug. 2 report, were devastating: Neenan had designed the building to a seismic safety occupancy category of 1 instead of 3, the required standard for schools.
A category 1 building presents "a low hazard to human life in the event of failure."
The school, in other words, was designed to seismic standards for structures such as barns and storage sheds.
But the report's criticisms did not stop there. SCI found girders that could bend under a maximum load, steel columns that were too slender and a roof connection one-fourth as strong as it needed to be.
It also found basic information on snow, wind and earthquake resistance criteria was missing.
The biggest problem, though, was the lack of bracing in the walls of the classroom wing to prevent a collapse in case of an earthquake or fierce windstorm — an "immediate structural concern," SCI said.
By then, nine months had passed since Studer had first warned Meeker officials that their new school might not be safe.
The school had been occupied by 350 children for an entire school year.
'We made a mistake'
The school board decided to shutter the school until repairs were made and move students to other district schools and the administration building.
In an interview, Goettel defended the district's response to Studer's red flags.
"Please know we never had a concern for our students or staff's safety in that building," she said. "We were gathering information throughout that process. We were actively seeking answers."
Neenan president Randy Myers acknowledges, in retrospect, that the school was unsafe to occupy.
"I guess considering the information we now know of, no, it wasn't," he said. "And that was not OK. I never want to put our clients in any type of position like that again."
Myers said Neenan still cannot explain why Howell, its structural engineer, designed the building improperly.
Howell was hired in December 2007, in part because the company had run into issues with outside structural engineers who "caused us some losses," Myers said.
The company has done its own structural engineering on about 35 percent to 40 percent of its school projects in Colorado and used outside help on the rest, he said.
Neenan hired a second structural engineer in the past year because of an uptick in business, but Howell was the only one working on Meeker, Myers said.
Myers said Neenan has not taken disciplinary action against Howell "at this time," saying the company is focused on fixing the school.
He would not make Howell available for an interview.
"We admit we made a mistake," Myers said, "and we're ready to fix it."
Neenan has found no problems in the design criteria of 21 other school projects in which it has done the structural engineering, Myers said. He said Howell worked on the majority of them. The company has requested records from the state to review other projects, he said.
Myers said the incorrect design documents for Meeker would not have been used on other projects because each is unique.
"I don't believe there are other comparable issues, but we will dig into the nitty-gritty," he said.
As a result of the problems in Meeker, Neenan school projects that have received money through the state's Building Excellent Schools Today competitive grant program also are under scrutiny.
Ted Hughes, who oversees the program for the Colorado Department of Education, told The Post he requested that Neenan conduct a third-party peer review of structural engineering for Neenan BEST projects in eight school districts.
Records show $150 million in BEST money went to the projects, which included six new schools and improvements to nine existing school buildings.
Neenan has agreed to the review and expects it to be finished by February, Myers said.
The company has made other reforms in an attempt to avoid problems on future projects. Myers said Neenan has begun third-party reviews of its structural engineering, at a cost of about $15,000 per project.
Neenan has a reputation for fixing problems, according to clients, and Myers said the company has never been to court.
Yet Neenan is at the center of a pending lawsuit Larimer County commissioners filed against 11 businesses involved in a major building project at The Ranch, the county fairgrounds complex in Loveland.
After a building sustained extensive damage during a 2006 winter storm, an insurance claim led to the discovery of alleged defects in the roof design and other work.
Neenan did not design the buildings but was responsible as construction contractor to make sure the project met contract standards, according to the lawsuit.
Myers said Neenan has taken responsibility and wants to make the fixes, and the parties are in mediation.
In addition, at least two other rural Colorado schools designed and built by Neenan have experienced problems:
• In Kremmling, a gymnasium roof on a new $11.5 million preschool through eighth-grade school lifted 3 or 4 inches during an April 2008 windstorm, the school district said.
Neenan repaired the roof that summer at no cost, and a settlement was reached after Neenan sued a subcontractor to recoup the cost, Neenan said.
• While an $18 million middle school in Craig was under construction in 2009, a Neenan supervisor noticed a deflection in a beam supporting a second floor. An independent review pinpointed a drawing error by a structural engineer hired as a subcontractor. Neenan paid for repairs.
Peter Bergmann, superintendent of the Moffat County School District at the time of the Craig Middle School project, said the district was very happy with Neenan on the whole.
"Whenever you have a construction project like we had going, with millions of dollars, there are going to be glitches you have to work through," he said.
Bergmann said he had no reason to believe the school has serious structural deficiencies. But, he added, "There is no way to really tell, from my standpoint."
Errors, gaps in records
The error in occupancy code on the Meeker school — visible in blueprints Neenan submitted to the state — should have been caught in the initial plan review, said Jon Weir, lead plans examiner for the Colorado Division of Fire Safety. The agency oversees school construction reviews and inspections.
"How that happened, I don't know," Weir said. "We religiously check this information because it's critical to the design of the building."
Plan reviewers are expected to make sure that permit applications are signed and complete, that snow-load designs for roofs are adequate, and that building exits are where they are supposed to be, among other things.
Weir said plan reviewers are not engineers and are not expected to judge designs submitted by structural engineers. But he said reviewers are responsible for checking whether engineers submit correct occupancy codes — which range from 1 for agricultural and storage buildings to 4 for hospitals and jails.
The plan reviewer on the Meeker school project, identified in public records as Benito Serrato, was working for the state Division of Oil and Public Safety at the time. The division was then responsible for enforcing building codes on school projects, while the Division of Fire Safety oversaw fire codes.
Serrato moved to Fire Safety when that division took over all aspects of reviewing school projects.
State records show Fire Safety Division director Kevin Klein tried to fire Serrato for reasons unrelated to the Meeker project. Klein sent a dismissal letter in October 2010 that accused Serrato of falsifying an inspection report and twice scheduling fictitious inspections.
Serrato appealed, denied any official misconduct and asked to resign instead. Klein would only say the plan reviewer on the Meeker school resigned, citing a confidentiality agreement in a settlement.
Serrato told The Post he doesn't remember seeing anything indicating that the Meeker school had been designed to the standards of a low-occupancy building.
Serrato said he relied on Howell's stamp that the building was designed properly, and that the state agency does not employ anyone who could challenge the expertise of a licensed structural engineer.
"They put their stamp on it saying everything's fine," he said. "The stamp shows a certain level of experience."
Klein said the division is reviewing other Neenan school projects. However, he said the division was able to obtain records for fewer than 20 of Neenan's projects in Colorado because the state does not have complete records.
He said if a pattern emerges, the division will seek records on additional projects from school districts.
Bob Hunnes, a Boulder structural engineer whom Studer consulted before airing his concerns about the integrity of the Meeker school, said broader questions about oversight should be asked.
"No one seems to be paying attention to the larger story behind the immediate issue of the school closure," he said. "How did a school project with so many significant design errors get through the state's plan review process without anyone noticing these errors?"
As recently as 2007, just one person handled plan reviews and inspections for the entire state, and "it wasn't getting done," Klein said.
A state audit that year faulted the Division of Oil and Public Safety's oversight and identified items missed on school inspections, including building plans that lacked required sprinkler systems, fire walls or appropriate exits. At the time, about 150 construction plans a year were being submitted to the state.
The state beefed up its oversight in response, first with temporary workers, then permanent employees.
Since 2010, oversight of school construction has rested solely with Fire Safety, and 13 staffers conduct plan reviews and inspections, Klein said.
The division does not have the workload to justify a full-time structural engineer, Klein said. But last month, it started using a consulting engineer for complex school construction projects to ensure code compliance, he said.
"We take this very seriously," Klein said. "The most important thing we are all about here is life safety. We have made a lot of improvements as a state about how we do inspection and construction."
Meeker fixes on hold
The state has signed off on repairs that will allow the Meeker grade school to reopen. But the project is on hold while the district conducts a fourth geotechnical report about soils at the site.
If the report raises additional alarms, it's uncertain what that might mean for repairing the school — and who would pay for it.
Neenan's Myers said, "Soils issues are a different issue. … We agreed to build the building in accordance to the client's soils report."
Others question how the community can trust Neenan and West — the owner's representative — to finish the job.
In agreeing to cover costs associated with its mistake, Neenan is now, in effect, paying West, whose contract was extended. So far, the company has reimbursed the district about $23,000 for West's labor and expenses.
"Let me get this straight," said Thomas Kennedy, a father of three elementary school students. "We end up with the exact same team that screwed up the project the first time, right down to the person who is supposed to be overseeing the project, who is supposed to be watching out for the board but is being paid by Neenan. You've got to be kidding me, guys. This is a conflict, no matter how you cut it."
West said Neenan reimbursing the district for his work does not pose a conflict.
"It's important to recognize my agreement and, consequently, my allegiances are to the school district," he said.
Goettel praised West, crediting him for saving the district money. The district, she pointed out, has hired several outside firms to review work on the troubled school.
"Hindsight is wonderful," Goettel said. "It's a luxury. I think it's very unfortunate, the situation we're in. But I'm confident we're moving forward to get this rectified correctly with the safety of students and staff at the forefront. Our goal is to have a building that stands for 50 years."