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Published in Print: February 2, 2005, as L.A. Facilities Chief Brings Military Ethic To Massive Operation

L.A. Facilities Chief Brings Military Ethic to Massive Operation

Ambitious School Construction Plan Is on Schedule and Meeting Budget

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As a captain who oversaw a major construction regiment for the U.S. Navy, Jim McConnell embraced the Seabees’ motto, “We build, we fight.”

Today, as the facilities chief for the nation’s second-largest school district, his new mission statement is “We fight to build.”

Jim McConnell
Jim McConnell, chief facilities executive for the Los Angeles Unified School District, poses for photographs Jan. 26 on the grounds of the Museum Science Center Elementary School in Lost Angeles.
—Ann Johansson for Education Week

The change reflects his daunting mission for the 740,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. As the director of the largest school construction program in the country, he will oversee the building of 160 new schools and the renovation and maintenance of nearly 12,000 other facilities in one of the country’s most densely populated areas.

Mr. McConnell took on a department that was marred by public distrust after the disastrous Belmont Learning Center project, the planned 5,000-student school that cost more than $150 million but never opened mainly because of environmental problems with the site.

Now, nearly four years into the job, Mr. McConnell appears to have turned things around. He has built a much larger facilities staff, led by fellow former Navy engineers, to handle the complicated work of building schools in such a sprawling urban area.

He and his staff have delivered 21 new schools and are on target to complete the ambitious 11-year, three-phase plan on schedule. Even more impressive, some observers say, is that they’ve managed to stick to their budget, which totals $14.4 billion.

“He has brought credibility to the department,” said Roy Romer, the district’s superintendent.

Mr. McConnell, whose sense of public service was honed by more than 20 years in the Navy, sees the job as another “tour of duty.”

“This is true public service, and vital to the future economic and social health of this region,” he said in a recent interview here. “For engineers, those opportunities are pretty rare in a career.”

‘This Was Ugly’

The job with the LAUSD was not Mr. McConnell’s first choice.

Jim McConnell

Position: Chief facilities executive, Los Angeles Unified School District

Age: 51

Education: U.S. Naval Academy, B.S., general engineering, 1975; University of Pittsburgh, master’s degree in civil engineering, 1978; Carnegie Mellon University, program for senior executives, 1997.

Career: Regimental commander/captain, 31st Naval Construction Regiment, Port Hueneme, Calif., 2000-01; commanding officer, Port Hueneme, 1998-2000; construction program manager, Naval Support Activity, Naples, Italy, 1995-98; commanding officer, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Seven, Gulfport, Miss., 1993-95.

Recent awards: “Person of the Year,” Governing magazine, 2004; Los Angeles Chamber of Com-merce Ira Yellin Distinguished Achievement Award, 2004.

Personal: Married to Anni Kauppi-McConnell; one son, Max.

After a career overseeing U.S. Navy construction projects around the world, Mr. McConnell had accepted a plum job as a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., when an aide to Mr. Romer asked him to interview for the facilities job. Mr. McConnell declined, but the aide nonetheless persuaded him to send biographical information. Two days later, he met with Mr. Romer. A week later, he was arranging for a release from the Navy.

“Romer is a very persuasive guy,” Mr. McConnell said of the former Colorado governor, declining to elaborate. Without a trace of a smile, he continued, “I got down here and realized what a mistake I’d made.”

For example, Mr. McConnell found that, four years into a $1.5 billion, five-year construction and renovation project that had been approved by voters in 1997, less than 30 percent of the work promised to taxpayers by the school district had been completed. There was also a $600 million deficit for the project.

“Hard and ugly never bothered me in the Navy,” Mr. McConnell said. “But this was ugly.”

To tackle the job, Mr. McConnell brought in a legion of professionals and outside consultants, including eight other former Navy officers to help run his department, a new legal team, and specialists in public relations, government affairs, and other areas.

He also instructed the legal team to fight any outstanding lawsuit it deemed unfair, as he said some shady contractors had filed frivolous lawsuits in the hope that the disorganized department would settle.

Vote of Confidence

Just a year and half after Mr. McConnell joined the district, his facilities team received a vote of confidence when Los Angeles voters approved a $3.35 billion school construction bond. With financing secured, Mr. McConnell’s team began writing a new master plan that called for 162 new schools and hundreds of renovations.

Writing the plan, it turned out, was the easy part.

Finding land for the new schools has been a harder, if not overwhelming, task. Often, the department’s real estate division has to invoke eminent domain and pay residents’ relocation costs as well as fair prices for their properties.

Members of the facilities staff have also negotiated partnerships to help with costs and logistics. For instance, they negotiated to locate a magnet high school for health sciences on the grounds of an orthopedic hospital.

Then there was the task of persuading contractors to work for the district. Mr. McConnell said most contractors refused to bid on jobs, because, in the past, they had been paid late and the jobs had been prone to problems.

So, he offered this incentive: The district will pay its bills within 30 days, and if there’s a problem, the contractor can immediately speak to Mr. McConnell or one of his deputies.

“These people understand construction,” said Wayne Lindholm, an Irvine, Calif.-based vice president for Hensel Phelps construction.

Administrative Excess?

Mr. McConnell is well versed in statistics.

While touring new projects in some of the most blighted areas in South Los Angeles, he notes that the average age of the district’s facilities is 50 years. Existing schools are so crowded that the district needs enough new space for 200,000 students.

The three-phase plan his office is implementing will add capacity for 162,000 students, and is slated to end in 2012. This school year, the district opened schools with 55,000 seats—enough to fill Dodger Stadium, Mr. McConnell frequently points out.

Each new school in downtown Los Angeles is uniquely designed to maximize small lots, and with nods toward sustainable, environmentally friendly features and the goal of creating a community showpiece.

Mr. McConnell’s management style seems to work well with the vast diversity and scope of the projects he oversees. The managers who work with Mr. McConnell say he’s pretty much of a hands-off manager—the type of person who hires people he trusts and then delegates work to them.

“Since we all have a similar background, we know the right procedures, and we don’t have to spend a lot of time talking about it,” said James L. Delker, a consulting deputy director and another veteran of the Seabees, the Navy’s construction arm, who oversees renovations.

Some existing LAUSD employees worried that Mr. McConnell and the other Navy-bred managers might impose a more rigid culture or stifle creativity.

“Exactly the opposite occurred,” said Edwin Van Ginkel, the senior development manager for new facilities. “The proper system was put in place, and we were given extra resources.”

Mr. Van Ginkel and others agree that there aren’t any Navy old-timers’ cliques. “We don’t have time,” Mr. Delker said.

Mr. McConnell has won national attention for his work at the Los Angeles district.

Last year, he was named a “Person of the Year” by Governing, a Washington-based magazine on state and local government, for turning around a “public works disaster” and restoring public support for the new schools.

Mr. Romer’s leadership has helped shield the facilities branch from many political land mines, said Connie Rice, a lawyer and the vice president of the Bond Oversight Committee, which audits the construction department’s projects. It took a new team with a different style of leadership to overcome the problems of the past, she said.

The former Seabees “understand the limitations of a bureaucracy like this—they don’t confront it, they tunnel under it and build over it,” Ms. Rice said.

But while Mr. McConnell says he’s working to make his department less bureaucratic, some critics say he and Mr. Romer are spending too much money on administration. The department increased from about 1,350 employees in 2001 to 2,218 employees and 808 consultants today, according to data provided by the district.

“The bureaucracy and amount of spending going on for outside consultants for the district has dramatically increased, particularly for legal staff,” said Steve Blazack, the spokesman for United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing LAUSD teachers and classified employees.

Mr. McConnell says that professionals with specialized skills were crucial to tackle issues that other district employees did not have the time or skills to take on.

Belmont Hangover

Even though Mr. McConnell spends up to a third of his time on public relations and meeting with community groups on new projects, the legacy of the failed Belmont Learning Center continues to haunt him.

After a presentation last month on the LAUSD’s facilities projects to a group of about 20 business leaders in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, audience members peppered him with questions about the future of the Belmont site.

He explained that the district is moving forward with plans for a 2,600-student high school on the site, away from an earthquake fault line that was found while conducting environmental studies there. The new school will be named Vista Hermosa and will also have a park for residents of the adjoining communities. ("L.A. Board Votes to Complete Troubled Belmont Complex," June 4, 2003.)

The total project is expected to reach about $265 million, and in December construction crews began tearing down several partially completed buildings and foundations that sat too close to the fault line.

Even if his department builds hundreds of schools, “if we don’t solve the Belmont legacy, we won’t succeed,” Mr. McConnell said.

Vol. 24, Issue 21, Page 9

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Clarification: The article gave an outdated cost estimate for the completion of the former Belmont Learning Center Project. The new estimate to complete a smaller school on the site is $309 million.

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