The Elmore Stoutt High School wall project was reviewed in detail in the Commission of Inquiry. (Photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

It was not easy to supervise the 70 contractors who worked on the Elmore Stoutt High School wall project, SA Architect head Steve Augustine told the Commission of Inquiry last week.

“You must realise that these 70 contractors perhaps had seven, eight, nine workmen per day working with them,” he said. “This was unique.”

Though everyone worked hard, he added, communication was a challenge.

“When I would go first thing in the morning, meet with the guys, sometimes you meet guys on sites; sometimes there’s guys coming to the site,” he said, adding, “It’s so many different things that you run across, and sometimes you would answer a question at point A and then the same question would arise at point Z.”

The anecdote about the project, which has faced criticism in the COI for cost overruns associated with contract splitting during an election year, was among the testimony during related hearings held Sept. 22.

The same day, the COI also called two other officials to testify about the project: Lorna Stevens, assistant secretary of the then-Ministry of Education and Culture; and Carleen Jovita-Scatliffe, the ministry’s former financial and planning officer.

Mses. Stevens and Jovita-Scatliffe both recounted conversations about both phases of the wall project and the decisions that were made to complete it.

Phase one

The first phase of the wall was initially estimated to be 180 feet long and to cost $159,000, according to COI Counsel Bilal Rawat.

It was then scaled down to 120 feet, for a cost of $96,000, and split into multiple contracts without a tender process.

When questioning former Education and Culture Minister Myron Walwyn earlier in the week, Mr. Rawat had raised various potential criticisms about that arrangement, including suggesting that Mr. Walwyn knowingly scaled down the project to avoid the tender process.

Last week, Ms. Stevens ex- plained her understanding of the reason for scaling down the wall for the first phase.

“[The reconsidered plan was] from the entrance gate back down to the second entrance gate, which would be 120 feet,” she explained. “The [original plan for] 180 feet would have taken it to the other side of the entrance gate.”

Ms. Stevens also said she couldn’t recall any discussions about cheaper alternatives than giving out 11 work orders for the first phase, which cost $96,000.

Ms. Jovita-Scatliffe, meanwhile, recalled that there was just a little over $100,000 in the budget to complete the originally planned 180-foot wall.

“To my recollection, I don’t think we had enough money to complete the 180,” she said.

Phase Two

Ms. Stevens also noted that the original $828,000 estimate for Phase Two — which ended up costing $1.16 million for an unfinished wall built through 70 work orders and 15 petty contracts — assumed that the project would be handled by a single contractor.

She said that when Mr. Walwyn, Ms. Jovita-Scatliffe and the permanent secretary discussed the project and decided to use petty contracts instead, they were aware that the decision would bring cost overruns.

Though Mr. Walwyn said in his previous testimony that he couldn’t recollect if he knowingly provided Cabinet with the $828,000 estimate after deciding to use petty contracts, Ms. Stevens said she recalled that he did so.

She noted, however, that they didn’t know at the time how many contracts would be used.

“I know it was discussed, yes, because we had several factors to it, including why the costs would increase based on if you were dividing it up among several different contracts or work orders,” she said. “The gist of that was we did not know the number of petty contracts or work orders that would have been used at the time.”

Ms. Stevens said she didn’t play a role in selecting contractors, and she wasn’t required to find out if contractors given work orders had trade licences.

Professional challenge

Both officials said they never worked on any other project that required as many contracts as the wall project.

When Mr. Augustine testified later in the day, he spoke similarly.

Supervising the wall project, he said, was a professional challenge the likes of which he had never experienced before.

“I don’t think there’s a handful of people in the world that could say ‘yes’” to managing a project with 70 contractors, he said, adding, “As a project team we worked really, really hard on that project.”