By Terry Dean
For the second time this year, the firm that handles construction projects at Oak Park and River Forest High School has come under scrutiny concerning how it has conducted its work.
Darien-based Wight and Company was criticized by school board members earlier this spring for higher than expected estimates for this past summer's construction projects at OPRF. The board approved a final cost of roughly $7 million, $2 million more than originally estimated. That work included upgrades to both of the school's swimming pools, which are complete but closed because Wight failed to get proper permits before doing the work.
Mark Wight, the company's CEO, met with parents of the girls' swim team on Oct. 27 to explain why the pools remained closed following upgrades to the drainage system.
The company conducted the work without a proper permit from the state to comply with new state guidelines concerning pool safety. Instead, Wight went ahead and completed the work and was later slapped with a fine of more than $20,000 in September by the Illinois Department of Public Health. The health department must conduct an inspection of the pools before giving the OK for them to be used.
Repeated calls to Wight within the last month were not returned to Wednesday Journal.
About nine parents met with Wight and OPRF Supt. Steven Isoye at the school. The girls' team has had to hold their home meets and practices at other schools in their conference. They also weren't able to host their senior night event this fall in the east pool. The school is now awaiting an inspection by the state health department. No date has been set for the inspection.
Elizabeth Holland, a mother of one of the swimmers, attended the Oct. 27 meeting. Holland said the girls have tried to make the best of the situation. But she expressed frustration at the school for not keeping the parents up to speed about the delays. She said weeks would go by without receiving any information from the school. OPRF Principal Nate Rouse told Wednesday Journal that he understood their frustration but that the school had not been given a definitive time for an inspection.
Rouse said the school was reluctant to keep telling parents when the pools might reopen. The health department, he adds, has all of OPRF's paperwork and that the school is awaiting its decision.
Holland, though, is also highly critical of OPRF's school board for not providing better oversight to Wight. The company was the architect, project manager and contractor for this summer's construction work, something she finds highly unusual.
"The board needs to be held accountable," she said. "It's their responsibility to make sure this was handled properly and it was not."
Holland added that Mark Wight assured parents that he will look into that practice. She also criticized the board for not publicizing that a fine was issued and paid—Wight agreed to pay the fine. Another concern is whether the work meets the safety code—Wight would have to demolish a portion of the pool if inspectors demand to see the installation. Holland said Wight agreed to pick up the tab for such work if it comes to that.
The parents also want regular updates from the school going forward.
Rouse said Wight had assured the school that replacing the pumps would be a relatively uncomplicated matter. Once a permit is issued, Wight will request a wet and dry inspection, but when those inspections might occur is uncertain. The company had considered some of the pool work "maintenance, not construction," according to minutes from a Sept. 14 Finance Committee meeting of the school board.
The minutes also show that the company had been contacted the day before about being fined, which "came directly to Wight and not the school district."
Holland said parents scoured minutes from committee and regular board meeting minutes but found no mention of a dollar amount, if it had been paid, and by whom. That, she said, they also found troubling.
"What we don't understand is how the school board can keep this information a secret and not tell the taxpayers. This is not the way to conduct business," she said.
Earlier this spring, Wight faced criticism from school board members concerning the over estimates for summer construction. Several board members were not only displeased with the higher estimates but also the fact that they weren't alerted earlier about the higher bids. Wight officials at the time said the bids were higher because contractors discovered that some of the work in the building was more complex than originally thought.
The board, though, went ahead and approved the work in March.