School construction woes caused waste of tax funds Top aide says poor communication is partly to blame

October 01, 1995|By CAROL L. BOWERS

The buck, or in this case $7.5 million in county school construction errors, stops at Ronald L. Beckett's desk. Mr. Beckett, an associate superintendent who has headed the planning and construction division for 12 years, accepts that. His colleagues, however, say no one person is to blame.

They say a combination of factors, some not in Mr. Beckett's control, led to the waste of taxpayer money. Poor communication between school engineers and board members, department turnover, lack of long-range planning and outright slip-ups are the true culprits, they say.

"It's not about blame," said Superintendent Carol S. Parham. "It's about how do we make it better. Whatever's required to do that, we have to do."

Dr. Parham said the issue still is being studied, but Mr. Beckett said the first place to start is with communication.

"We didn't communicate clearly with the board -- the Broadneck High School addition is a good example," he said. "We told the board we might have to study the HVAC. We knew what we meant, but we failed to tell them the potential consequences."

The consequences were another $1 million to study the heating-ventilation-air conditioning system, known as HVAC. The building code for renovations had changed after the first cost estimate on the project.

Park Elementary is another example of failed communication. The construction department told the school board that redesign costs had reduced the size of the contingency fund -- money set aside for the inevitable problems that occur on construction jobs.

"But we didn't take time to make a bigger issue over it so the board would know we might have to come back and ask for

more money," Mr. Beckett said.

And they did come back -- for another $1 million. This money will be used to hire security guards, pay for losses caused by vandalism at the site and for unforeseen construction problems.

"None of that could be helped," Mr. Beckett said.

It hasn't helped either that the department has had six directors of construction and planning in 15 years, said Bruce Emge, assistant county auditor. Problems can occur too easily during the transition from one director to another.

"A lot of these things could have slipped through the cracks" in the latest handoff from planning and construction director Michael K. Raible to Rodell Phaire last year, Mr. Emge said.

A bigger problem, though, is that the school board has no real long-range construction priority list, he said.

"Your new school may be third on the list one year and the next year it bounces down to 13," Mr. Emge said. "The staff is being jerked around because of public interest. A community comes down and the board reacts to that. But it doesn't allow a long-range plan to function, and who do you really blame for that? It's tough sitting there ignoring a room full of people saying, 'We need a new school.' "

Another problem is the damage done to the department's image since the discovery of the first problem -- cost overruns in the media centers, Mr. Beckett said.

"That was a horrible error. The estimates were done about five years before, and while allowances were made for inflation, we never really reassessed the cost," he said. "We took our lumps on that one."

Another element in the construction equation was the teacher-student sex scandal in which four teachers were prosecuted between 1993 and 1994.

"Unfortunately, because Mr. Beckett is too humble to bring it up, you have to remember that during the Ron Price scandal, he had extra duties to handle," said Kenneth Lawson, associate superintendent for student services, referring to a teacher who was arrested and convicted of child sexual abuse.

The three teachers who were caught up in the scandal were acquitted. However, the school system is trying to fire them, citing policy violations.

Mr. Beckett's duties included unearthing and turning over school records to independent investigators and handling the school system's own disciplinary actions against the teachers.

"It was not to be expected that in a 24-hour day that he could provide the same level of close supervision that he has provided for many years," Mr. Lawson said.

When Mr. Phaire took over as construction director about a year ago, reporting to Mr. Beckett, he tried to improve the department by splitting the staff into on-site reviewers who report to three project managers overseeing 30 projects. "It wasn't always the case before that that one person would follow a single project all the way through," said Mr. Phaire.

Board member Michael J. McNelly said he does not blame Mr. Beckett for what has gone wrong within the department, but expects him to take responsibility.

"I would say you can delegate authority, but you can't delegate responsibility," Mr. McNelly said. "I am confident, though, that Mr. Beckett does understand the seriousness of the situation and that the superintendent is going to make sure the problems are addressed."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.