Fort Smith School District prepares to investigate Peak Innovation Center flooding cause

Director of District Innovation Gary Udouj walks out of his office, which had carpet removed due to flooding, Wednesday, May 24, 2023 at Peak Innovation Center in Fort Smith. Fort Smith Public Schools is considering Peak Innovation Center site improvements, considering the space has flooded twice in the two years since its been open, Visit for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

FORT SMITH -- The School Board is looking to hire a third party to investigate the flooding at the Peak Education Center.

Board members found they were in agreement of a third-party investigation during their meeting Monday, but had different opinions on what outcomes they want to see.

Board President Dee Blackwell said the investigation should help amend board policy so the issue doesn't occur again.

Board members Dalton Person and Sandy Dixon, the latter of whom is president of Turn Key Construction, the construction manager in charge of the initial Peak Project, said they wanted to learn who was at fault.

"The taxpayers contributed nearly $20 million for this project. We need to know who's responsible, why the cost keeps coming up and why we haven't resolved it," Person said.

Person requested an investigation at least be bid out to see how much it would cost. He said he wants a third party to do it to determine if the district is at fault, as well.

Blackwell said the board will have to call a special meeting to discuss Peak and asked the board members to consider what scope they want the investigation to have in the meantime.

The center opened to students in March 2022 and is a collaboration between the School District and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, but owned by the district. It serves roughly 280 students from 22 school districts across Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Scott and Sebastian counties through the university's Western Arkansas Technical Center program.

The center houses courses for automation and robotics; computer integrated machining; electronics technology and industrial maintenance; emergency medical responders; medical office assistants; network engineering; and unmanned aerial systems. It's the last of the district's Vision 2023 plan projects to be completed, which were paid for through a 5.558-mill property tax increase voters approved in May 2018 generating roughly $121 million.

Peak's parking lot first flooded last June, putting a custodian's car under water.

The district had several companies work to address the flooding, including Turn Key Construction Management, Halff Associates and Servpro. It was determined a pipe failed on the north wall, and plywood forms broke and obstructed the drain pipes.

Scott Tucker, a Servpro production manager, told the board any porous items in contact with the floodwater -- including drywall and insulation -- need to be replaced.

Allen Deaver, Halff Associates project manager, in August presented the board five options to keep the lot from flooding. Option 1 is to move a 42-inch pipe in order to separate the amount of water coming in from neighborhoods east of the site. Option 2 removes all 42-inch pipes and replaces them with a concrete-lined channel, while option 3 replaces the 42-inch pipes and an elliptical pipe. Option 4 involves moving the parking lot to a higher elevation on-site. He said each option is more expensive than the last, but also reduces the expected amount of water pooling after a flood. Only option four is expected to entirely eliminate all expected pooling.

The board approved a drainage project to raise the lower parking lot on the property and excavating the east field for a detention pond, which was estimated to cost about $1.4 million.

The center flooded for the second time during spring break in March, with water entering the front office area, the adjacent hall and nearby classroom areas, according to a news release from the district. The release said no classrooms experienced damage and the center was open the following Monday, with the office area closed for a few weeks for repair.

At the School Board's April meeting, district construction project manager Joseph Velasquez said the amount of work will now cost almost $4 million. At Monday's meeting he presented ideas to modify the project by raising the existing parking as discussed, removing the 42-inch diameter reinforced concrete pipes, installing 4.5-foot by 6-foot box culverts and putting in a trickle channel.

Marty Mahan, the district's deputy superintendent, said to his knowledge the decision to originally install the 42-inch pipes was made as a group by the project's architects, engineers, consultants, construction managers and the district. He said the administration is in agreement to remove the pipes in order to not have water pooling in the eastern parking lot.

"I will say ultimately, as a district and as a team, we wanted to do what was safe and what was cost efficient and what was timely," he said.

Travis Brisendine, vice president and Fort Smith operations manager with Halff Associates, wrote a letter to the school board May 12 stating the property where Peak is located has unique drainage challenges well known to Halff before construction began, some of which contributed to the damage caused by the flooding events.

"While there are several complicated factors that contributed to rising waters and subsequent damages at the Peak facility, it is our concern that some have not been clearly articulated to the school board following these rain events," the letter states.

"Halff has volunteered, on more than one occasion, to be allowed to present this information at previous School Board meetings, but our efforts were not successful. It is important to us that you have all the facts on this matter, so you can make informed decisions going forward."

Person asked why Brisendine felt the need to write the letter.

Brisendine said he felt there was technical information that wasn't being adequately explained.

"Some of the questions that were being asked, as well, implied that there was some questioning of the expertise of the team, if you will," Brisendine said. "So we just felt like it was time to make sure everybody understood what we were and were not tasked to do.

"We were contacted and asked would it be possible to install 42s due to safety, time and budget was what we always understood. We made a comment at that point that we could not prove it short of a drainage analysis to confirm that the pipe size would even work as needed," he clarified.

Danny Haynal, vice president of operations for Turn Key Construction, said they aren't an engineering firm, and installed the pipes based on Halff Associates' drawing.

"All I've gathered on 42-inch pipes is that our engineers state that they prepared a drawing that they didn't approve of, and our contractor says they installed it pursuant to the drawings," Person said. "And everybody's happy to point a finger at the district or to our out-of-the-area contractors or construction manager at risk, designers, whoever, but no one here in this room is willing to take any responsibility for what has happened. And because of that, I think we need to hire someone to investigate."

  photo  Furniture is set aside after flooding, Wednesday, May 24, 2023 at Peak Innovation Center in Fort Smith. Fort Smith Public Schools is considering Peak Innovation Center site improvements, considering the space has flooded twice in the two years since its been open, Visit for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)