Summer 2001 Newsletter

New Facilities Chief Surveys L.A. Landscape: Mixed Impressions Lead To Guarded Optimism

L.A. Unified has had its share of victories and defeats in the past couple years. But, in an attempt to right the sinking ship, it went outside its governance structure to hire Capt. James McConnell, former commander of the 31st Naval Construction Regiment at Port Hueneme, California. NSBN is pleased to offer an excerpt of McConnell's first impressions of the LAUSD's current state of affairs.

I have been on board for about six weeks and thus far I have, I think wisely, done more listening than talking. But I'm here this morning to give you my early perceptions of the Facilities Services Division.

There are three key components of this Division--New Construction, Existing Facilities, and Maintenance and Operations. I've spent time with each component trying to learn the current state of affairs, and trying to compare what I've learned to what is familiar to me after my 26 years in facilities construction, maintenance and acquisition. I'd like to take a few minutes this morning to relay my initial impressions.


First, I'd like to talk about the area of new construction. This group is faced with the challenge of completing 137 projects, including 85 new schools, to provide 73,000 new student seats. A year ago this New Construction Branch barely existed. The work that has been done to build a professional capability in new construction is truly remarkable. Today the makings of a solid organization are in place to manage the highly complex challenges of real estate acquisition, design, project management and construction. The new construction branch, however, is still very much a work in progress. We have yet to put in place a coherent execution strategy. We need solid cost accounting and internal controls which today do not fully exist. We continue to develop policy and procedures. And we have to address how to manage a bow-wave of work dependent upon other agency action such as DSA and DTSC...

The challenge of building the organization while meeting the daily demands of one of the nation's largest public infrastructure programs is roughly analogous to performing open-heart surgery on a marathon runner who just started the race.

We will continue to create this work in progress. Staff it with competent professionals. Establish procedures worthy of the taxpayer's trust. The New Construction Branch represents great opportunity for LAUSD. This is an emerging good news story and, while there will be setbacks, we must succeed. Failure is not an option.


The second major component of my Division is "Existing Facilities/Modernization." The story here is not quite as hopeful. There is a widely held opinion that we need fundamental organizational and procedural change in this group if we are to be good stewards of the taxpayer's trust and dollars, and complete over 8,000 projects worth $1 billion on nearly 800 campuses.

This is a huge and complex construction challenge and as I look at the organization I don't find much that feels familiar or comfortable. We need to change. And some important changes have recently occurred, for instance we have rebaselined project costs to achieve greater confidence in our estimates. And we have hired Local District Facilities Directors and Project Managers. These represent a good start, but much more needs to be done. We need to change the way we manage designs. We need to change the way we manage construction contractors. We need to revisit our execution strategy. Change our cost controls. Strengthen our internal controls. Change our reputation with the professional design and construction communities. Change the organizational and managerial mindset. Change the culture. In short, we need to become a more professional, more engaged, and more demanding client.

This isn't open-heart surgery on a marathon runner. This is rebuilding the runner from the ankles up.

I look forward to sharing with the committee over the next several weeks my plans for continuing the transformation. I think we can change. I think we can make better use of the modernization dollars. I think we can recapture the confidence of the local superintendents, and the taxpayers. You have my commitment that we will.


There is a third broad area under my charge which typically gets little attention but which, in my opinion, is highly important to the health, safety, and effectiveness of our campuses. That's the area of maintenance and operations.

We have thousands of good people in M & O who work hard every day to unclog the pipes, eliminate the graffiti, sweep the floors, change the light bulbs, keep the ovens working and a hundred other things that need to be done every day to keep our facilities safe and functioning.

I have the greatest respect for these people; and I want to help them do their jobs better, faster, and cheaper. And I want them to do more with their jobs.

In my Navy past, facilities maintenance was more Science than Art. Maintenance is an area which lends itself very well to automation, to performance standards, and to metrics.

Currently, the LAUSD approach to maintenance is more art than science. This needs to change. Maintenance & Operations is a $230 million per year business. And while it will never be an exact science; we need to understand that 1% of inefficiency squanders $2.3 million. I'm not sure how we would access our efficiency today, or whether we could even measure it. This seems to be an area ripe for improvement with systems, software and practices that exist elsewhere today in industry and the federal government. We will work to bring a little science to the area of maintenance to better leverage increasingly limited maintenance dollars.


Thank you for this opportunity to paint for you in very broad strokes what I've seen so far and where I'd like to go as your Chief Facilities Executive. I look forward to your questions, and to working together with you to build new schools and make existing school facilities better, while securing and preserving the public's trust. Thank you.