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Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2002 12:00 am

As a host of voter-approved construction and improvement projects in the Marana Unified School District move toward brick and mortar reality, the new Marjorie W. Estes Elementary School remains mired in delays that have workers banging away months after children began attending classes, and school administrators ready to take legal action.

The razing and replacement of the old Estes school at 13650 N. McDuff Road was just one of several projects totaling $38.8 million that were approved in a 1999 bond election which raised district taxes almost $50 per year.

And while district taxpayers have much to show for their money - including the new Twin Peaks Elementary school at 7995 W. Twin Peaks Road and new sports fields at Marana Middle School - the new Estes Elementary School was still under construction when children arrived for classes in August.

"We actually got the kids in, but we ended up the day before school started bringing in our own people to finish it up enough so it was safe to bring the students in," said Assistant Superinten-dent Scott Mundell, who oversees MUSD's finances.

The district began consultations with its attorney in July and plans to try and exercise a clause in its contract with the builder, Walton Construction Co., that could have Walton paying the district $1,000 to $1,700 per day for each day the construction is overdue, Mundell said.

The cost of the $7 million project remains within budget, but only because of a 5 percent "contingency" amount the district factors in to each contract for unforeseen cost overruns.

"They're right at that the limit of the 5 percent contingency right now and not through any effort of their own," Mundell said. "We've been monitoring their costs pretty closely."

Some significant phases of the construction covered in the contract are more than 45 days late, and a long list of "punch list" items still remain to be completed throughout the school site, said Bob Thomas, MUSD's assistant superintendent in charge of building and maintenance.

Punch list items refer to work identified during a walk through of the site by a building owner and usually the project's architect, after a builder has declared a project "substantially completed."

"We had six pages of typed, single spaced, items on the punch list when we did the walk through in September," Thomas said. "We still have several pages left including stuff like sealing the exterior block walls and the block walls inside the cafeteria, landscaping that needs to be done and doors that don't close properly."

Students arrived six months ago to find classrooms completed, but the library, cafeteria and playgrounds still under construction.

Students were marched across the street to Marana Middle School's cafeteria at 11279 W. Grier Road for lunch, Thomas said.

The latest estimate from Walton, a contractor based in Kansas City, Mo. with a division office in Phoenix, is to finish all the punch list items by April - about a month before the end of the school year.

"From the beginning, there were a lot of unforeseen problems," said Dave Merna, Walton's project manager for the Estes construction. "There's things we've encountered that almost shut the job down completely."

Soon after the project broke ground, workers began discovering concrete foundations, underground utilities and about a half dozen septic tanks buried underneath the Estes school and surrounding grounds that were not shown on blueprints for the site.

"It was like a huge trash heap," Merna said of the debris, most of which is associated with old school buildings that were apparently built, torn down and forgotten over the more than 80 years the site has been used by the Marana district.

Also early on during excavation of the site, a sinkhole appeared that almost swallowed one of Walton's construction vehicles and led to more delays. After school began, workers were limited to working mostly after classes had recessed for the day, Merna said.

"There's not much I can say to defend us. To an outsider, it just looks like we're way over schedule, but I feel we've done a good job considering the problems we've run into," Merna said.

Some MUSD Governing Board members disagree with Merna's assessment.

At a meeting Feb. 12, a majority of board members groused about Walton, which had never done any work for MUSD before, and which won the contract for the Estes project with a low bid.

"I wish there was a way we could warn other school districts in the state about this contractor," said Boardmember Jan Mitich. "It just seems like one thing after another."

By comparison, the construction of the new Twin Peaks Elementary School by Lloyd Construction has received praise by MUSD officials. The $5.3 million Continental Ranch-area project was completed weeks before the beginning of the current school year with few difficulties and within budget, Thomas said, but noted the school was built on vacant desert land, and was less complicated than the Estes project.

The opening of Twin Peaks cut student enrollment at the Coyote Trail elementary school, which sits less than a mile away at 8000 N. Silverbell Road.

Other projects that have been completed using revenue from bonds authorized in the 1999 election include $250,000 that were earmarked for new ball fields at Marana Middle School, and the purchase of 30 acres next to Marana High School, 12000 W. Emigh Road, for the school's expansion.

By December, MUSD hopes to have 20 new classrooms built, as well as new tennis courts and parking areas constructed at the school. The district has budgeted $13.4 million for the planned expansion.

Other projects the district has in the works include:

Building a new swimming pool complex planned for Marana High School, expected to be completed in April 2003.

Purchasing four acres adjacent to Ironwood Elementary School, 3300 W. Freer Drive, for expansion. Funds for the purchase are in escrow and biologists are in the process of conducting surveys of the land for the presence of the endangered and federally protected pygmy owl. If the district receives federal clearance to build on the land, it is expected to be purchased by February 2004.

Constructing 20 classrooms and a new gym at Mountain View High School, 3901. W. Linda Vista Blvd. Work is already underway and is expected to be completed by November.

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