Baltimore Co. audit faults school system Problems found in construction bids, recordkeeping

Educators agree

Report confirms 1996 internal review, seeks more reforms

January 24, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

An audit of the Baltimore County school district's facilities department has found that officials did not properly plan major construction projects, sidestepped competitive bidding on some contracts and failed to justify cost overruns.

The county auditor's 18-month review also detailed widespread problems in recordkeeping on school construction, while confirming problems disclosed in May 1996 by the district's internal review.

The audit moved a step beyond the internal review by calling for a variety of reforms and policies aimed at forcing the facilities department to better justify its decisions and comply with Maryland bidding regulations.

"While we recognize the great strides made by the [school board] to bring about change, our review disclosed numerous deficiencies and areas still in need of improvement," the audit concluded.

In a written response to the audit, county educators agreed with almost every finding and conclusion, noting that some of the audit's recommendations have been implemented and that many other reforms are planned. Yesterday, they pledged to continue working to improve their management of construction money and projects.

"I think they are taking major steps forward," County Auditor Brian J. Rowe said yesterday. "They still have a long way to go."

The County Council ordered the audit in June 1996 after concerns were raised about the facilities department in the wake of a bungled renovation and air-quality problems at Deer Park Elementary School.

Reviews by the school district about the same time found that department officials routinely awarded work without competitive bidding, misrepresented contracts to gain board approval, mismanaged projects and hired people who did business with the school system.

When the audit was ordered, several council members suggested that the county consider taking over management of school construction and repair work.

The school system swept out virtually all of its facilities managers and brought Gene L. Neff, former head of the county Department of Public Works, out of retirement to become the facilities department's chief engineer.

The county audit of the department examined the period from July 1, 1994, to July 22, 1997, although Rowe said most problems were found before fall 1996.

The audit found that:

"Emergency" purchases totaling $463,319 were not justified. "These purchases were processed as emergencies in order to avoid competitive bidding and required approvals."

No evidence could be found of competitive bidding for 13 orders totaling $1,929,304, even though Maryland law requires such bidding for major maintenance purchases of more than $15,000. Also, eight purchase orders totaling $77,311 were split into amounts of less than $15,000 to "avoid competitive bidding and required approvals."

Decisions on priorities of construction projects were made without regard to enrollment projections, and cost estimates were not "reliable or accurate."

Major projects "lacked proper planning," and costly, last-minute changes were often made "without adequate justification" because of the influence of principals and PTAs.

Some invoices for major projects were dated prior to purchase orders, and more than $1 million in invoices were not paid in a timely manner.

School officials agree

School officials did not dispute the findings.

"It verified our own internal audit," said schools spokesman Donald I. Mohler, referring to the 1996 review. "There is nothing RTC new in there that wasn't found by the internal audit that was requested by the superintendent."

Rowe agreed that much of the audit was a "rehashing of what has already been printed."

In his recommendations, Rowe called for the facilities department to make vast improvements in its recordkeeping and justification of contract changes. The audit also called for facilities officials and the school board to craft new policies, including those that set standards for emergency maintenance and construction priorities.

"There just was no documentation for many of their decisions," Rowe said. "It made it very difficult to conduct the audit."

Change under way

Some new policies already have been established, and school officials have a two-year plan for other reforms.

"What I have said to the superintendent is that if there are any policies or changes that need to be made by the board, he should bring them to us and we'll do them," said school board President Dunbar Brooks.

Although the audit suggested that the county Department of Public Works could manage school construction, maintenance and renovations, it concluded that a county takeover would be almost impossible because of state laws and other constraints.

The audit and changes in the facilities department have dampened politicians' calls for a takeover.

"I think they're doing better than they did a year ago," said Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican who 18 months ago was one of the most outspoken advocates of a takeover. "My impression is that the work is being done more quickly and efficiently."

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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