Kissel Hill Elementary School - A Lesson For Dealing With COVID-19

A Conversation By Dan Cicala

Twenty years ago, after successful careers commuting to and working in New York City, my wife and I decided it was time to raise a family and relocate to Pennsylvania to build a home and ‘start a new life.’ After moving, but still commuting and working in New York City, I became aware that there was going to be a meeting to discuss construction plans in our local school district. I do not recall exactly why I attended .. out of interest for the education of our then young boys or out of curiosity as a taxpayer or both … but, I attended that meeting (which I later understood to be an ACT 34 hearing) and wound up answering a couple of construction questions (I recall about sinkholes) that were raised by fellow residents. After the meeting I was approached by the business manager, Mr. David Zerbe .. and also had the opportunity meet the Superintendent, Dr. Stephen Iovino. Based on what happened months later, these innocent introductions would prove very momentous to the course of my life.

The Warwick School District wound up hiring a construction manager out of Harrisburg as their construction representative, their construction projects commenced and about a year later in early 2003 I received a call from David Zerbe to meet for coffee to casually discuss the projects. During coffee, he handed me a letter about the Kissel Hill Elementary School Project (a classic, expansive renovations and additions project). The letter was written to the project architect, signed by all four prime contractors and reflected that the project was already about 11 months behind schedule. Additionally, and critically, the architect had already acknowledged the delay was not the fault of the contractors .. the main culprit of the delay was that the contract’s project phasing schedule and Owner occupancy were incongruous and impossible to achieve due to how the existing and replacement mechanical systems were distributed throughout the building. The letter requested the project architect to make a determination to either accept the 11-month delay (which again, was already acknowledged) or agree to compensate the contractors a collective acceleration claim in the amount of roughly $800,000. After discussing the letter, David Zerbe asked me if I could ‘do anything’ to help the situation .. and, not knowing anything more, I said “yes” and was hired.

I had agreed to take on a challenge not really knowing exactly what I was facing nor what I would do about it .. but I was committed and had faith that I could get to the bottom of it all .. and ‘fix it.’ I was definitely going to need some help with the ‘fixing’, so, the very next thing I did was speak to a dear friend, Doug Woolley, who recommended someone who might be a good fit as ‘partner-in-crime’ in the endeavor. In short order, I met Marie Drossos* at a local diner for coffee (I mostly drink tea) and after a robust conversation she told me the ‘ball was in my court’ (for those who knew Marie, there was a ‘catch-phrase’ for everything .. and everyone!) to make a decision to join forces and the two of us very soon afterward showed up for work in a humble, converted apartment above a local watch repair shop and got to work! (John Baer/the Lititz Watch Store remain friends to this day!)

At Kissel Hill, the first thing we did was meet the principal of the school to listen … to listen and learn everything we could about his needs .. and we did the same thing with the rest of the Owner’s team, Architect and their major consultants, Contractors and all of the other project team members. The construction was indeed terribly behind schedule .. so we needed to quickly catch up on the project history and facts in order to best understand all of the project issues .. and we were determined to find solutions. During the process, we were building trust and relationships .. we were honest, respectful to everyone involved and selflessly focused. From the contractors, we wanted nothing ‘for free’ nor did we intend to harm anyone .. but we recognized that their help was paramount if we were going to be successful. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy approaching, dealing with and convincing contractors who were expecting either eleven months of time extension, $800,000 (in 2003 dollars!) or some combination thereof .. that we were trying to fix the situation by finding a no-cost, no-time solution!

We worked thru everything .. one day-at-a-time .. one issue at a time .. and there were so many highlights .. two vivid memories that come to mind .. the project executive for the electrician upon meeting me and hearing what I wanted to accomplish replied with the Roy Scheider Jaws line “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2I91DJZKRxs for the younger generations) and, toward the end of the project, the literal ‘begging’ I had to do (I mean, I came from New York City where there were all sorts of approvals and inspector stories, but nothing prepared me for this!) when we needed to convince the Labor and Industry code official to schedule additional inspections and work with us .. 

In the end, we were able to re-phase the project which included working with the Owner to establish a handful of classrooms that were not essential to opening so we could focus on fully completing the rest of the project .. and after much teamwork and a year of focussed efforts, we managed to welcome students and staff as per the original completion date for the opening of school and, after all the dust settled, the District wound up incurring about $15,000 to do so. Everyone pretty much rallied behind the effort and walked away satisfied. Mission accomplished.

While I am not suggesting in any way a comparison to nor minimizing the tragedies of COVID-19 (hereafter “COVID”), there are similarities in the mindset and approach to how we dealt with the Kissel Hill project and in how we dealt and continue to deal with COVID.  Respectfully, there are three parallels that jump to the surface … the 1. Value in aiming high, 2. Importance of team building and communication and 3. Necessity of hard work to accomplish objectives ..

  1. ‘If You Aim at Nothing ... You are Sure to Hit it!” .. and further, if you establish high expectations, you have a much better shot at being satisfied with the end results. Fidevia was hired to ‘help the situation’ at Kissel Hill. The easy, arguably practical, thing in establishing objectives would have been to expect the Owner to have to spend a significant amount of money and absorb months of delay. I relate this mindset to to the ‘split the baby’ stereotype that some litigators have heard about or experienced in alternative dispute resolution where an arbitrator/mediator looks at the situation as presented by both sides and concludes that the solution is somewhere right in the middle of each parties’ presented expectations, rather than invest the time and effort necessary to ‘do the right thing’ in accordance with the facts and law as moral and professional duty would dictate. However, such a middle road compromise would have cost the taxpayers a fortune and delaying the opening of school would have had all sorts of ramifications. We set the bar very high from the beginning .. and I am confident that we would not have had anywhere near the level of success we had if we hadn’t aimed high. .. The comparison to dealing with COVID is that when COVID first hit, we as a firm took a hard look at the circumstances and facts as best we knew them and established an aggressive stance that we were going to do whatever it took to ‘keep the family together’ and get to the other side … and while we are certainly not on that other side, this goal has and continues to guide and shape our efforts as we continue forward.

  2. Team Building and Communication. The two concepts are interrelated. Success at Kissel Hill required building consensus among the stakeholders. It would not have been enough to study the situation and impose a solution. First, the search for a solution best occurs where there is open communication and dialogue as a team .. sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in small groups and sometimes with the entire team .. all of that is part of team building .. and the ideas are necessarily generated and flow from conversation, not dictation. Second, it cannot be said enough that if you want to accomplish something important involving others, it is far easier when the people involved are all working toward the same goal(s) .. as a connected segue, I have been participating in roundtable discussions on a national level with the Forum on Construction Law .. when COVID first hit, many of us were searching for the proper analogy to express what we were going thru .. at first, the phrase ‘uncharted waters’ was tossed around quite a bit .. and this soon evolved into ‘navigating uncharted waters.’ However, as I kept listening and thinking (and I must admit that for many years I have admired the mystique of the Viking culture), I settled into the analogy that in order to best deal with COVID, we need to be like a Viking ship with everyone rowing in unison to navigate these most uncharted waters! ..  The more difficult the challenges, the more imperative it is to functionally work as a team .. and, relatedly, more communication and in different and creative ways is necessary in order to build that team .. 

  3. Chalepa ta Kala. One of the mottos from my Gettysburg College fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha, was Chalepa ta Kala which is Greek and literally means “Naught without Labor” … simply stated, results require hard work .. and while it seems so cliché, hard work is absolutely necessary in order to overcome challenges and achieve results. Anyone who worked during the first couple of months of COVID knows that far greater effort needed to be expended in order to accomplish the same results .. at Fidevia, it seemed that some of us were working twice as hard. Similarly, on the Kissel Hill project, it would have been impossible to have had the successful ending we achieved in such a difficult situation had we employed a ‘business-as-usual’ attitude. Creative, successful problem solving requires investment of time .. Chalepa ta Kala!

Frankly, COVID has presented a renewed call to rethink how we approach all of our projects .. how we define and set our goals and the team-building and communication processes we employ .. such thinking must be applied to how we address the various COVID protocols, interruptions and related liability issues, manpower shortages, widespread supply chain disruptions etc. in order to maintain and accomplish successful results.

The take away of the above rambling is .. to have faith, ambitiously set goals, work honorably and really hard .. and take care of each other and row together along the journey!

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The Kissel Hill project served as the foundation for the organic growth of Fidevia .. 17 years later, Fidevia has grown into Pennsylvania’s most trusted Owner’s Representative a School District can have on their side. Fidevia’s current geographic range spans from the New York State to Maryland borders, from Central PA to the New Jersey Border .. and when the right relationship comes along, we intend to expand into the western half of the Commonwealth. 

Most importantly to Fidevia, we are still working with the Warwick School District (seventeen years later) as well as with the 2003 Kissel Hill elementary principal (who is now Dr. Brian Troop and the Superintendent of the Ephrata School District). Every day is truly a gift .. and to build long, life-lasting relationships is precious.

*Marie became our office manager, friend, beloved team-mother, loving pot-stirrer/ prankster etc etc. until she retired 14 years later. Tragically, Marie passed away in a car accident right after retirement – injustice for Marie .. and a loss for all who knew her. Everyone embraced and loved Marie, because she always took the initiative to reach out and embraced and loved everyone else – we think of you often, Marie .. and Happy Birthday! .. XO 

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