Wichita USD 259 officials are hoping to expedite repairs to Wichita East High School’s science wing, which shut down this semester because of structural issues. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)
Wichita USD 259 officials want to expedite repairs to Wichita East High School’s science wing, which was closed after structural issues were found. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

Wichita East High School students and teachers are back to class for the spring semester, but some of them are returning to different classrooms.

After discovering structural issues in the building’s science wing in the fall, school officials are shuttering the wing’s 18 classrooms until repairs can be completed. Teachers from those classrooms are continuing their instruction elsewhere on the campus along East Douglas Avenue.

Luke Newman, director of facilities for Wichita USD 259, explained that the school district’s process to repair the building is a special one used for emergencies.

Why is a repair needed?

Built in 1923, Wichita East is the school district’s oldest high school building. With nearly 2,400 students, it’s also the largest high school in Kansas. Upgrades in the decades since have expanded the building’s footprint while keeping much of the original architecture.

As part of a multiyear and multimillion dollar renovation process, Wichita USD 259 in 2018 began the first of four planned phases to repair much of the building’s original brick exterior. 

But when a structural engineer surveyed the science wing on the southeast side of the building last year, they found several big issues, including:

  • Foundation is settling in the soil and needs to be reinforced with helical piers.
  • Roof supports need to be rebraced.
  • Parapets (walls along the roof’s edge) need to be rebuilt.
  • Exterior, lateral wall supports to be re-anchored.
  • Repair and restoration on the brick walls, as well as some concrete repair.

While Newman emphasized the wing isn’t “not safe,” the district chose to follow the structural engineer’s recommendation to vacate the wing during the holiday break and keep it closed until repairs are made.

What happens to the science wing now?

With the science wing closed for the spring semester, the high school moved 18 teachers with rooms in the wing. 

Eight of those teachers will now teach from other classrooms in the main campus building. The 10 others were moved to WSU Tech’s City Center building, immediately south of the main East High School building.

Although the wing is closed this semester, repair work probably won’t start until the summer after design work and contractor selection are complete. Later in the spring, school officials will determine whether portable classrooms will be necessary for at least a part of next school year. The repairs will cost between $5 million and $10 million, according to initial estimates.

Newman said the district hopes to streamline repairs and reopen the science wing as soon as possible by using a special process called construction manager at-risk delivery. Foundation work could start as soon as March, he said.

What is construction-manager at-risk delivery?

When starting construction projects that require outside contractors, school districts usually use a design-bid-build delivery process. 

First, a project design is created, usually by contracting with an architecture firm. Then the design’s construction needs are published and contractors are invited to bid for the work. Finally, a contract is awarded to the lowest qualified bidder.

Design-bid-build, the default process for school construction needs, is deliberately a slow process that helps ensure construction contracts are awarded in a fair and competitive manner, Newman said. Construction companies aren’t involved until the last step of actually building the project.

In contrast, construction manager at-risk delivery streamlines the process by allowing school districts to pick a general contractor earlier in project timelines. Contractors can provide input on construction, cost and scheduling during the design process, which helps save money and time by avoiding costly revisions later on.

With the pandemic still affecting supply chains, construction manager at-risk delivery allows contractors to order building supplies earlier. Newman said that will help address long lead times on some materials.

With the construction manager at-risk delivery process, school districts award contracts based on a scoring matrix that includes proposed fees scored by the Kansas Department of Administration, prior experience, project plans and interviews with a selection committee. The design-bid-build process almost exclusively awards construction contracts to the qualified bidder with the lowest price.

Under Kansas law, the construction manager at-risk process is more involved than design-bid-build and includes more administrative hoops, Newman said. That’s part of an effort to ensure contracts are still awarded fairly. In Wichita East’s case, Newman said the project selection committee will include staff from various offices and departments in the district to minimize any opportunity for favoritism.

Still, Newman said that construction manager at-risk delivery is worth the hassle for emergency situations that require more immediate work.

The district used the construction manager at-risk project delivery process to build Southeast High School and remodel the Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center.

What comes next?

In December, the Wichita Board of Education selected Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture for design and engineering services not to exceed $550,000 on the science wing repair project. The Wichita-based firm has developed a master plan for the district and worked on school projects in Andover, Derby, Geary County, Maize, Meadowlark and Wichita.

The school board also approved the district’s plan to use the construction manager at-risk project delivery method. The school district is in the process of requesting qualifications from interested contractors.

Newman said some foundation work may start as soon as March or April. Once design work is completed and a contractor is selected, he’ll ask the board to approve the project’s guaranteed maximum price, he added.

“All of this is being accelerated and pushed in the interest of trying to get (students and teachers) back into the building in the 2022-23 school year,” Newman told the school board in December. “We won’t put a hard date on that until we’ve had some critical conversations with our team members, but at some point in that school year, I anticipate we’ll definitely be getting back in.”

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Garcia was an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon and Report for America corps member.