Audit of school in works is sought

Cranberry Station is year behind schedule, $1.7 million over budget

School, county boards agree

April 08, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

The county commissioners and the school board yesterday called for an independent audit of the troubled Cranberry Station Elementary School, which is one year behind schedule and $1.7 million over budget.

The proposal came during a sweeping, often tense meeting of the two boards, whose members addressed school construction problems and debated plans for new schools.

Cranberry Station is expected to open in August about 20 percent over its proposed $8 million budget. An investigative article by The Sun, published in February, found many of the overruns were tied to a breakup with the school's original contractor, James W. Ancel Inc. of Towson.

School officials had demanded an apology from Ancel after a dispute over rock removal at the site. The demand soured the relationship between them and eventually prompted Ancel to terminate his contract, documents show.

School officials did not protest his leaving, arguing that Ancel would not be able to finish the project on time. Ancel, however, has said he left because of the school system's "vicious and hostile" approach to his firm.

Since Ancel's departure, the school system has scrambled to pull the project back to- gether, paying more for construction work because of tight deadlines and market conditions.

Both boards yesterday indicated an independent audit might answer questions surrounding the Westminster project.

"I think not only do we owe an explanation to the commissioners, we owe an explanation to the public," said school board member Susan Krebs. "The more information we offer, the more credible and accountable we become."

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge agreed and called for audits of other school departments.

She criticized the board for not sharing a 1997 audit of the school construction department, which found flaws in its management and warned the lack of organiza- tion could lead to project errors and delays.

"We are paying for these audits. We should be a part of them," said Gouge.

School board member C. Scott Stone bristled at the suggestion that the commissioners could order an audit of the school administration. Stone said that under state law only the Board of Education could make that decision.

"That being said, I do not disagree with having a performance audit," he said.

Other school board members supported the audit proposal and agreed they would vote on the issue at a future meeting.

Addressing another problem, the school board readily agreed to hand over control of Francis Scott Key High School's wastewater treatment plant to the county government.

The county will inherit a number of problems with the new responsibility.

As part of a $16 million renovation of Francis Scott Key, the school system replaced the school's inadequate 40-year-old septic system with a wastewater treatment plant. Defying state law, school officials last year built the plant without the required state environmental and construction permits. Without permits, the plant cannot operate.

The school system is paying $9,000 per month to haul raw sewage from the high school to Westminster's treatment plant. School officials are scrambling to find a place to release the plant's effluent. Once they find an approved location, the plant could start operating with state permission.

Complicating matters further is a lawsuit filed by a neighbor, demanding the Maryland Department of the Environment assess penalties against the school system for its actions and force it to dismantle the plant.

Stone said he fully expects the school system to be penalized for its actions. The superintendent is also investigating the matter, which could result in consequences for school personnel, Stone said.

A farming couple who live adjacent to the high school is considering legal action against the school system after a portion of their 1,000-foot driveway was destroyed during the renovation. The family must drive through the high school parking lot and bus turnaround to reach their home.

School officials acknowledge they made a mistake. Yesterday, both boards closed the meeting briefly to discuss the problem, but no resolution has been announced.

Since taxes were raised in 1995 to pay for an ambitious school construction program, four of the first five projects are over budget. Two did not open on time.

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier started yesterday's meeting by warning the Board of Education to proceed cautiously with its ambitious school construction program.

Frazier said the county should be careful not to rush to build new schools that could later be empty because of changing student enrollments. She said the school system should consider redistricting changes and additions before building new schools.

"Your credibility has been hurt a little lately, I think we can help," Frazier said.

Board members objected to a proposal by Frazier to make additions to the planned Century High School and South Carroll High School instead of building a new Westminster High School. It would save about $17 million, according to a proposal drafted by the commissioners.

But the school board said the proposal would make the high schools too crowded and inconvenient.

"I don't support having a student who is within walking distance of one school shipped 15 to 20 miles to another school," said school board member Gary W. Bauer.

Yesterday's joint meeting of the two boards was the third in as many weeks. Gouge called for another meeting in several weeks to discuss the audits of Cranberry Station. Stone went one step further, suggesting regular meetings every six weeks.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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