Officials dispute audit of Deer Park County facilities team denies charges that effort was mishandle

'Never had a budget'

Plan changes caused spending problems, notes 163-page report

June 04, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Facilities officials in charge of the Deer Park Elementary School renovation and its aftermath say an internal audit of problems is riddled with errors, and blame contractors and other employees for the air quality crisis that led to the school's closing.

In a 163-page report, Faith C. Hermann, former Baltimore County schools facilities director, and four of her managers -- three of whom are being ousted from the school system -- take issue with the audit, which found that the Deer Park project was overbudget and mishandled.

The project "never had a budget," the team says, because its scope was still being developed months after the money was allocated. The renovation, they say, was "unanticipated [and] unplanned."

"We, Faith Hermann's management team, take great pride in the accomplishments of March through November 1994," the report says. Nowhere in the lengthy document does the team accept responsibility for Deer Park's problems.

"To date to our knowledge," the officials conclude, "there has been no justifiable health reason found to close the school."

The report, the team's first public response to problems that surfaced in March, has been distributed to most, but not all, school board members. Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione said through a spokesman yesterday that he forwarded the report to the school system's attorney without reading it.

The Deer Park audit, released last month, concludes that the $2.2 million project was poorly managed from the start and was overspent by $657,000, and that facilities officials failed to respond to complaints by staff and parents.

A wider audit on the $40 million-a-year facilities operation, released last week, revealed widespread violations of bidding laws and procurement procedures.

The officials, who refer to themselves as the "facilities team," include Hermann, maintenance manager Dennis Beran, maintenance supervisor Robert Klein, capital projects specialist William J. Moran Jr., and air and water quality specialist James F. Patton. The latter three were told Friday that their contracts would not be renewed after June 30.

"All we tried to do was save the taxpayers of Baltimore County money and give them the service they expect of us," Moran said.

Klein declined to comment; Hermann and Patton did not return phone calls. Beran, on vacation, could not be reached.

The officials take issue with the audit's conclusions that the project was overbudget, saying the project's scope widened while it was under way, from an asbestos and microbial abatement to a full-fledged renovation.

The officials had to complete the project "piecemeal" because they were allocated too little money, the report says, adding that about $500,000 was redirected to another school. The County Council gave the schools about one-half the estimated cost, it says.

Acting Deputy Superintendent Robert Chapman, Hermann's direct supervisor when she was in charge of facilities, did not return a call seeking comment.

The report agrees with the auditor's statement that the project was poorly planned and managed. But it blames a current and former employee: an environmental official who warned about the problems 17 months ago, and the former director of capital improvements.

As to the conclusions by engineers and by the audit that ethylene glycol, an antifreeze, was leaking from the heating system, the report says that it wasn't evident in large enough quantities to create fumes. The leaking substance, forming puddles in classrooms, was what drew parents' attention and led to the uproar that closed the school.

"What we actually have is rusty water with an odor," the report says.

The team could have quelled parents' fears this spring by providing information showing that conditions were not harmful, the report says, but county and school officials wouldn't let them talk.

Facilities officials repeatedly asked Deer Park's principal for documentation from physicians showing health concerns of students and staff, but received none until March 15, the report says.

While those quoted in the internal audit blamed facilities officials for choosing and sizing the Airedale heat pumps, the report says the equipment was competitively bid and awarded to the lowest bidder. Moran and Klein worked with the sales representative on sizing the units according to the company's calculations, the report said.

And while the audit casts suspicion on the decision to declare the Deer Park renovation an "emergency" -- allowing officials to circumvent bidding laws -- the team defended the move.

The action was taken because the work had changed extensively and the deadline for opening the school had not been delayed, the report says. "To suggest that our intent was to circumvent the bid laws is inaccurate and unjust."

The report also criticizes the "lack of performance" of certain contractors -- including some who conducted recent tests and studies on the building. It raises questions about the validity of their findings because of their involvement in the original project.

Noting that the department cares for 170 buildings, the report says, "It is obvious that for years the people in this department have struggled with aging buildings and inadequate funding. However we'll stand on our record. We are not perfect, but we are successful by any fair standard."

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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