Improper purchasing practices in the Baltimore County school facilities department -- similar to those outlined by an internal audit released Tuesday -- were brought to the attention of administrators as early as November.
But school board members apparently were not told of such problems until the recent debacle at Deer Park Elementary forced the issue onto center stage.
An internal memo written in November by a school purchasing official warned that purchase orders were issued to contractors for work that exceeded the bid price and did not have board approval.
The memo also said that some purchase orders exceeding $15,000 were not advertised for competitive bids or approved by the board, a potential violation of state procurement laws.
The memo, obtained by The Sun, also raised questions about projects designated as "emergencies," allowing school officials to bypass state requirements for competitive bidding.
"The irregularities are of a large enough magnitude to indicate to me that this is the 'norm' rather than the exception of how the Facilities Department has been conducting business," wrote Richard A. Hanzevack, an official who polices the school system's facilities purchasing practices.
The disclosures follow a school system audit detailing numerous violations of county regulations and school policies in the $2.2 million renovation of Deer Park Elementary in 1993-1994.
The school was closed in March after parents complained about air quality.
As an example of procurement violations, the audit stated that more than $73,000 was paid to vendors for early completion of their work -- incentives that were not approved by the school board.
In one case, a $14,000 incentive for asbestos abatement was paid before the job was completed.
The Deer Park renovation, which exceeded the budget by $657,000, left a new heating, cooling and ventilation system that didn't work, the audit said.
Acting on the auditors' recommendations, Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione pledged to reorganize the facilities department's management and staff, to train employees and to review the work order system.
He has transferred all procurement duties out of facilities and into the office of purchasing.
Marchione did not respond to a phone call yesterday seeking comment about the November memo.
Asked Tuesday night which school system administrators were aware of the violations in purchasing procedures, he said: "That's part of the next step, to determine who knew."
The memo was addressed to Rita Fromm, executive director of purchasing, and copied to purchasing coordinator Carol Cook.
Both said yesterday they could not comment on the memo or on specific allegations.
But they said that in general, when they discover procedural violations, they work to correct them case by case, notifying appropriate officials.
Among other concerns, Hanzevack wrote that when he rejected certain purchase orders that came to him for approval, he was told by maintenance manager Dennis Beran that "Marchione told Faith [Hermann] to get certain jobs done during the summer, and as a result, certain purchase orders are now being designated emergencies."
Neither Hermann, who recently was removed from her position as facilities director, nor Beran returned calls yesterday.
"I do not personally feel that Dr. Marchione instructed anyone to act outside of standard purchasing procedures, but as a result of the actions taken by certain individuals, it was interpreted this way," Hanzevack wrote.
Hanzevack has not returned phone calls seeking comment.
Board member Robert Dashiell said yesterday that he was not told of allegations of improper practices before the Deer Park audit and that he wants an investigation into the charges.
He added that since he joined the board in 1994, he has been concerned about procurement practices -- especially what he called a lack of minority representation in contracting and a dearth of competitors on major projects.
"I've seen too many awards that for all intents and purposes were made on what appeared to be a sole source basis, or based on a short list of qualified vendors," he said. "And the process by which one became a qualified vendor was altogether vague."
Auditor Frances Parker said Tuesday that although she found policy violations in the Deer Park project, she found no evidence of fraud. She said she had trouble finding the documents to complete her investigation.
"Some people were cooperative, some were not," she said. "But some of that was disorganization."
Meanwhile, some Deer Park parents yesterday criticized the audit for its conclusion that the building posed no health problem. The audit blamed the renovation debacle on poor planning, judgment and communication with parents and staff.
Health officials have found that Deer Park's ventilation and temperature problems, and leaking antifreeze, could have caused illness among those prone to asthma and allergies.
Symptoms reported by teachers were linked to the building's problems, the officials have said.
Parent Arlene A. Mongus, who said her daughter, a second-grader, was diagnosed with asthma last fall shortly after going to school, said school officials are "minimizing the effect to protect themselves. They're trying to do the middle ground of cautiously accepting blame."
Board President Calvin Disney yesterday blamed the administration of former Superintendent Stuart D. Berger for the problems.
Pub Date: 5/16/96