WEST ORANGE, NJ – Monday’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting was the first time that the board heard that there were problems surrounding the construction of the high school’s new athletic “Bubble.”
The board listened as Tony Catana from Spiezle Architectural Group recounted issues with both the hired contractor (GL Group Inc.) and the manufacturer of the Bubble (Arizon), which was not hired by the board.
The “Bubble,” an “air structure” that is used as an athletic facility at West Orange High School (WOHS), was recently reported as being almost completed, despite being several months late and approximately $500,000 over budget.
Catana explained that the contractor, GL Group, has been behind on the project from the very beginning.
“At the last job meeting, which was last week, [the contractor] claimed he was going to be 100 percent [finished] by the end of this week,” he said. “I see that as a cosmetic finish.”
He added that the contractor is on track to having the floors and walls finished, all fixtures installed and everything painted, but that an obstacle stands in the way of having the Bubble completed.
“The manufacturer of the Bubble, which is Arizon, is not being cooperative,” said Catana, adding that he only became aware of this issue last week. “They refuse to make the penetrations that need to be made in the bubble for [the contractor] to complete his work.”
Catana explained that since Arizon holds the warranty of the Bubble, this is the only firm that can complete work on the actual Bubble. This includes making penetrations on the roof for a drain waste vent in the bathrooms and exhaust vents from the bathrooms.
“Only Arizon can come in, make the openings that they need, [and] make them sealed tight,” said Catana. “That’s part of their warranty for the Bubble itself; [but] Arizon refuses to work for this contractor until they get paid for a change order with the previous contractor.”
He added, however, that since Arizon has already been paid for work the firm was scheduled already scheduled to do, that this explanation does not make sense.
“So [Arizon is] holding it over the board’s head, ‘pay me to do this change order’—for work that they were scheduled to do—'or I won’t do work for this contractor,”’ said Catana.
Another issue causing the delay is the recent heavy rainfall that has caused leaks as a result of a faulty gasket system installed by Arizon between the bottom of the Bubble and its concrete foundation, according to Catana.
“Basically, what [Arizon does], is they put a gasket between the bottom of the dome and the concrete and in several locations it’s still leaking,” said Catana. “[Arizon claims] they came out last month and fixed those leaks; but after the last storm, which was a terrible storm, it leaked again.”
Catana continued that Arizon is blaming “the grading around the Bubble” as the cause for the leakages, even though everything from the “concrete up is brand new.”
“It’s their installation that seems to be the problem,” said Catana, stating that this is despite Arizon’s persistent attempts to pass off the blame.
Board member Cheryl Merklinger called the situation “unacceptable” and “frustrating.”
“This project was supposed to be done months ago,” said Merklinger, also mentioning that when she took a tour of the Bubble with Athletic Director Ron Bligh last week, she saw that it did not look “anywhere ready to be cleared for full use this week.”
“Tiling’s not done; electricity is not in there; we have school starting in a few weeks; we have gym classes that are going to be displaced still; [and] from what I understand, the football team is not going to be able to use the locker room,” said Merklinger.
Board member Mark Robertson added that he was livid about the situation surrounding the Bubble. He continued that prior to Spiezle Architectural Group working on the Bubble, the board had identified that “one of the primary issues was a fundamental management one” and that “no project manager had been assigned to [the Bubble].”
“It wasn’t clear on the original architect’s contract; it wasn’t assigned in buildings and grounds to own; there was no ownership,” said Robertson, adding that the board will “certainly remedy that moving ahead.”
Robertson also mentioned that since the Bubble is over budget—with a cost of more than $1 million—the district “could have built a building.”
West Orange Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone qualified Robertson’s statement, saying that although the Bubble is overbudget, the cheapest structure originally proposed would have cost around $2 million.
He also added that, in retrospect, “it’s very frustrating…because of all the time [the Bubble has] taken,” but that the decision that was taken “was the best decision at that time, notwithstanding the challenges that [the board] encountered successively.”
“And I think it’s just important to say that for the public, lest the public thinks ‘well why didn’t we build a building?’ Well, because a) it was way more expensive and b) it wasn’t really, truly an option at that time,” said Dr. Cascone.
In response to concerns with the Bubble’s manufacturer, Dr. Cascone also suggested to have “a good old-fashioned sit down” with Arizon to assess the situation.
“Something I might recommend we do in the short term is bring [Arizon] in and just have a conversation [about] where we are, where our concerns are, what we need to do to get to [and] where we need to be from here,” he said. “And if we find that we have irreconcilable differences then we can always go the legal route. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I think it’s worth trying.”
Despite many setbacks, some board members, parents and community members acknowledged that good progress is being made on the Bubble.
Mountaineer Endzone Club President James Rawls commented that he saw “a lot of progress over the last two weeks,” and appreciated that the board as well as the superintendent took the opportunity to visit the Bubble.
Robin Isserles, parent advocate and co-founder of the West Orange Cares About Schools Facebook page, shared the board’s outrage about the Bubble, but also hoped that the superintendent and the board will be able to make Arizon “come good on their promises.”
In response, Dr. Cascone said that although there is a “relatively small amount of time to correct things.” He also vowed that the board would do better and learn from this experience moving forward.
The next board of education meeting will held be on Aug. 26 at WOHS.