Linebacker Connor Soell

Linebacker Connor Soell and other members of the Sabercats state championship football team practice on Saguaro High School’s new synthetic turf field, which was constructed using funds from the bond approved by voters in 2016.

Four high school football teams in the Scottsdale Unified School District began the season on new artificial turf fields in recent years, following a trend away from natural grass that has taken hold nationwide.  

While SUSD officials have stated the move was cost-effective, a Progress analysis suggests SUSD may have significantly overpaid for the field renovations at Saguaro, Coronado and Chaparral high schools compared to similar projects at area high schools in recent years.

SUSD paid $8,079,097 for renovations at those three schools that included new artificial turf fields and running tracks. Each project cost between approximately $2.5 million and $2.8 million.

Comparable projects completed at area schools in the past five years showed a per-field cost of between $1 million and $1.5 million.

The field renovations were paid for through the 2016 voter-approved bond.

The district cited lower maintenance, upkeep, labor and water costs when it decided to pursue artificial turf installation for worn out fields at Saguaro, Coronado, Chaparral, Arcadia and Desert Mountain high schools.

Artificial turf does not have to be watered for growth, though water is still used to a lesser degree to cool artificial turf, which can heat up in direct sunlight and high temperatures.

Internal documents show that the district relied heavily on Hunt & Caraway, the architect it hired to manage the construction process.

That company was also involved in several Scottsdale school rebuilds that led to an investigation by the Arizona Attorney General’s office, which sued the district in an attempt to halt construction on two bond projects at Hohokam and Cherokee Elementary Schools.

The AG alleged that then Hunt & Caraway President Brian Robichaux,  who was SUSD’s principal architect and sat on the contractor selection committee, illegally attempted to influence another member of the committee on behalf of specific contractors, including CORE Construction.

The complaint alleged that Robichaux urged that CORE Construction be ranked first for the Hohokam project and Chasse Building Team as first for the Cheyenne project.

There is no evidence that Robichaux advocated on behalf of CORE Construction for the athletic field renovations. The AG’s complaint was limited to the projects at Cheyenne and Hohokam elementary schools.

Hunt & Caraway apparently was awarded the contract for the field projects without board approval.

Following multiple requests, district representatives could not provide the Progress with an exact date for the board’s approval.

The board approved an architectural services contract with Hunt & Caraway in December 2016, but the agenda for that meeting indicates the services were only for school site rebuilds.

Then Superintendent Denise Birdwell had previously justified circumventing the board to award architectural services to Hunt & Caraway for another bond project at Hopi Elementary School, contending the firm had already undergone review by the private procurement cooperative 1GPA, according to a report by KJZZ and Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.

That review turned out to be flawed, as it failed to find criminal procurement violations from Robichaux’s past and never noticed that he was not a licensed architect in Arizona.

An internal district memo shows that the field renovations may have been awarded at the same time as the Hopi project.

On Feb. 1, 2017, then-Chief Financial Officer Daniel O’Brien wrote the district’s procurement office: “It is recommended that Hunt Caraway Architects be awarded the contract(s) to design the Hopi remodel, football fields of: Saguaro, Chaparral, & Coronado, and Central Kitchen remodel.”

CORE Construction, the construction manager at risk hired by the district, received $7,458,710 for the field projects – exceeding the $7,370,178 guaranteed maximum price approved by the school board in May 2017.

Though the final construction cost was only a little over one percent above the GMP, it appears the district’s initial cost projections were high.

District contracts indicate the district expected to spend $7.5 million on the three fields. That per-field cost of $2.5 million is above costs incurred by other schools in the Valley that undertook similar projects in recent years using CORE.

In 2013, Paradise Valley Unified School District paid $4,541,968 to replace existing grass fields with artificial turf fields at four high schools.

 That price included replacing pole vault and long jump runways and pits at North Canyon and Shadow Mountain high schools and new discus and shotput pads at Horizon and Shadow Mountain high schools.

In 2015 and 2016, CORE converted three fields in Buckeye Union High School District from grass to synthetic turf at Buckeye, Estrella Foothills and Youngker High Schools for $3,536,706 – less than half of what SUSD paid CORE for its three fields.

CORE Construction did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Dennis Roehler, SUSD director of facilities management, said that he could not speculate as to why the SUSD projects cost more than comparable projects in other districts, only stating that many factors contributed to the overall costs.

Those factors included “moving scoreboards; replacing asphalt under the track; regrading to correct drainage issues on both track and field; monsoon storms that impacted Chaparral and Saguaro; adding storm drainage and an impermeable liner under the Saguaro and Chaparral fields; drywells; and electrical upgrades.”

But many of those factors played a role in the other school districts’ field projects.

SUSD paid CORE Construction $7,458,710 under a CMAR contract. The CMAR, or construction manager at risk, procurement process allows districts to weigh various factors, not just cost, when selecting contractors.

After a CMAR selection, the district awards a guaranteed maximum price.

A 2014 study by Clemson University of 137 public schools in the southeastern U.S. found that CMAR contracts resulted in higher quality than design-bid contracts but also produce higher costs.

 “Essentially, public school administrators were paying a significant premium to obtain perceived improvements in both service and product quality,” the study said.

Arizona legislators this year added new rules for school districts’ procurement processes that take effect next July and require districts to award contracts to the lowest qualified bid.

The decision to use a CMAR contract alone does not account for the increased costs incurred by SUSD.

Both Paradise Valley Unified and Buckeye Union High School districts utilized the CMAR procurement process and came away with considerably lower per field costs than SUSD.

Some of the increased costs can also be tied to Scottsdale Unified’s use of an architect on the project.

The district paid Hunt & Caraway $522,468 for architectural design services on the three fields, or nearly $175,000 per field.

Multiple individuals with knowledge of the district’s procurement processes questioned why SUSD chose to hire an architect instead of an engineer to design the fields, which is typically cheaper.

For comparison, the district paid engineering firm Hess-Rountree $56,073 to design the new track and field at Arcadia under supervision of district staff.

Emails show that Hess-Rountree actually worked on the Saguaro, Coronado and Chaparral fields as well.

District officials said an architect was needed because of the complexity of the project.

Ultimately, the district still faced cost overruns on the field projects because of unforeseen complications.

“Initial projections fell short of actual costs,” Roehler said. “In each case, unanticipated conditions occurred at each construction site that needed to be addressed, resulting in additional costs.”