Fort Smith Board to consider independent investigation into Peak flooding

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 427 views 

Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education Secretary Dalton Person called for the board to hire someone to investigate flooding at Peak Innovation Center to determine once and for all where things went wrong in the project.

After a presentation Monday (May 22) at the board meeting regarding a possible fix for drainage issues that have plagued the district’s innovation center it opened last March, discussion turned to why two 42-inch pipes were originally installed as a measure to avoid water pooling on the property and why they now need to be removed.

“All I’ve gathered on 42-inch pipes is that our engineers state they prepared a drawing that they didn’t approve of, and our contractor says they installed it pursuant to the drawings. And everybody is happy to point their fingers at the district or at our out-of-area … designers, whoever, but no one in this room is willing to take any responsibility for what has happened. And because of that I think we need to hire somebody to investigate,” Person said.

While board members agreed that they are in support of a third-party investigation into the issues at Peak, there were conflicting ideas regarding the scope of such an investigation and what the board hoped to see as the outcome. Board President Dee Blackwell said the investigation should help set policy for future construction projects within the district. Person and Board Member Sandy Dixon, who is president of Turn Key Construction, the construction manager in charge of the initial Peak Project, said they wanted to learn who was at fault.

“The taxpayers have contributed, what, nearly $20 million, for this project? We need to know who is responsible for why the cost keeps going up and why we haven’t resolved it,” Person said.

Person said he specifically wants to know why the two significant weather events that flooded the center over the past year occurred and who is to blame for the problem that has caused the “incurrence of millions of dollars of additional funding required” to fix.

Peak opened March 28, 2022, after numerous delays. Since its opening, it has flooded twice. The first occurred when record rainfall in Fort Smith caused flash flooding in the city June 7, June 8 and June 10 of 2022. That incident caused flooding in the east parking lot of the facility. Water came into the Peak Innovation Center during the rainfall June 7 from two sources, according to FSPS reports.

A drainage project that includes an additional parking lot, approved by the school board in 2022, is expected to eliminate future drainage problems by raising the lower parking lot on the property and excavating the east field for a detention pond. At the time the board approved the project, it was estimated the cost of the drainage work would be about $1.1 million. Adding an additional parking lot was expected to cost $300,000. At the school board’s regular meeting April 24, Joseph Velasquez, FSPS construction project manager, told the board the scope of work and the price tag had grown to almost $4 million.

A storm on March 23 caused the second flooding incident. In this incident, water primarily entered inside the front office area and seeped into the adjacent hallway and near classroom areas, a statement from the district said. None of the classrooms experienced damage, and all classrooms were operational by March 27.

Travis Brisendine, vice president and Fort Smith operations manager with Halff Associates (formerly Morrison-Shipley Engineers, Inc.), wrote a letter to school board members and the district May 12 expressing concern over “unique drainage challenges” at Peak and information that has been shared with the school board.

“The property on which the PEAK Innovation Center is located has some unique drainage challenges that were well known to us before construction began. Some of these have contributed to recent damages from record rainfall events. While there are several complicated factors that contributed to rising waters and subsequent damages at the PEAK facility, it is our concern that some have not been clearly articulated to the school board following these rainfall events,” Brisendine said in the letter.

Brisendine told the school board Monday that he believed technical information Halff provided the district was not provided to the school board and thus Halff’s expertise in the matter has been questioned.

Velasquez presented to the board Monday concerns a project that will modify the original presented drainage fix as well as the extended options presented in April to only include raising existing parking, removing existing 42-inch diameter reinforced concrete pipes and installing
4.5-foot by 6-foot box culverts and putting in a trickle channel.

Hallf, who was hired by Fort Smith Public Schools for consultation work with Peak and also investigated the 2022 flooding event and presented preventive measures that could stop further flooding, said the modified project would eliminate water pooling at the property. When board members asked who initially suggested the 42-inch pipes be installed in the first place as a way to fix water problems at Peak, no one had an answer.

Deputy Superintendent Martin Mahan said it came up in discussions with the engineers, the architects, the consultants and the construction manager at risk. Brisendine said they (the engineers) told district officials before the pipes were installed that they could not approve the project without a drainage analysis. In his letter to the board, Brisendine said at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2021, two (2) 42-inch storm drain pipes were installed at Peak with the intent of solving some of the property’s drainage problems, “despite concerns expressed by MSE/Halff in the December 6th meeting.” Halff did not complete any design work before the two 42-inch pipes were installed, the letter states.

Brisendine also said in his letter that when Shaffer notified Halff June 7, 2022, that water had entered the building at various locations following significant rainfall events in the area, Halff learned that a concrete trickle channel included in the original plans for the building that was intended to be built along the north face of the building had not been built. The intent of this trickle channel is to improve the conveyance of surface drainage from that area due to the flat slopes present. When Halff asked about the channel, they were told this concrete channel may have been omitted as a cost savings item. Halff also said they were told by school officials that the second flooding including water coming up through the floor joints.

Danny Haynal, vice president of operations for Turn Key Construction, said they built what they were told to build based on that drawing but had raised numerous objections. Turn Key sent the school district a letter in March 2021 noting that the building had water problems – especially with the concrete floor – that were not fully understood and they were concerned about proceeding with construction plans.

“At this time, it is not known whether the french drain system will satisfactorily resolve the problem, and it will be impossible to know whether the french drains system will satisfactorily resolve the moisture problem. … The Owner (FSPS) has instructed Turn Key to proceed with construction notwithstanding the fact that the moisture problems have not been fully and finally resolved,” noted the March 2021 letter from Turn Key’s attorney to the school district. (Link here for the PDF of the March 2021 letter.)

Mahan said the 42-inch pipes have never been the cause of flooding at Peak. He said that when the decision was made to install them, the district wanted “to do what was safe, cost efficient and timely.” He also said that administration agrees they need to be removed because they don’t want the water ponding in the easter parking lot.

School Board Member Matt Blaylock raised concern that certain things were done at the center mainly in deference to time and cost instead of what was right.

“If you don’t have the time or money to do something correctly, you certainly don’t have the time or money to do it over,” Blaylock said.

The board agreed to continue with discussions of plans for drainage solutions to the flooding issues while they look at starting an investigation. Velasquez said HSA Engineering Consulting of Fort Smith, hired by FSPS to look into the most recent flooding at Peak, has completed its evaluation. He plans to have HSA representatives address the school board in June, at which time a full idea of what needs to be done to resolve flooding issues and the cost will be discussed.

Blackwell said the board would need to have a called board meeting soon to set the scope of and agree upon an investigation into the causes of the flooding issues and who is to blame.