Report notes school trouble

Lack of experience, bad recordkeeping add to cost overruns

`Consistent failures'

March 28, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

An internal investigation of the Carroll County school system has found "consistent failures" in its handling of school construction, noting that projects -- even beyond those entangled in legal troubles in the past year -- have been hampered by cost overruns and poor decision-making.

In a report released yesterday, a team of lawyers and former FBI agents -- hired by the school board in December to conduct the inquiry -- portray Carroll's school construction department as a place beset by chaos, lacking experience and unprepared to handle the demand to build schools rapidly in a developing county.

Improvements have been made since two projects -- Cranberry Station Elementary and a sewage treatment plant at Francis Scott Key High -- became mired in lawsuits and subject to a grand jury investigation, the report found. But investigators said the school board must provide better oversight over the department to prevent future blunders, and suggested major reforms.

In a move unexpected by the board when it hired the investigators, attorney Richard D. Bennett, who led the inquiry, sealed about 10 percent of the findings and passed them to Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes. That information, which Bennett said did not necessarily include allegations of criminal wrongdoing, could become part of the grand jury inquiry that began in May and could continue for months. The grand jury could decide to make some or all of that information public when its investigation is complete.

Released yesterday was an unsealed 100-page document from Bennett's team as well as dozens of exhibits. Among the findings made public yesterday:

Construction personnel frequently accelerated projects despite warnings from outside architects, contractors and govern- ment agencies that important financial and construction issues were being overlooked.

The department "wasted" at least $2.6 million by failing to enact proper cost controls, failing to secure proper authorization before expanding the scope of projects or being caught off-guard by unforeseen expenses.

Lack of communication between various school departments, between school departments and the school board, and between the school board and county commissioners generated a climate of confusion in which proper permits were not always sought and proper procedures were not always followed.

Administrators did not always give the school board accurate information about construction projects and sometimes told contractors to submit invoices for a series of small amounts, so the school board would not have to be informed of the expenditures.

Construction staff routinely substituted cheaper building materials to cut costs, but no actual savings could found by the investigators. At Runnymede Elementary, cabinets were built using particle board instead of metal, purportedly to save $45,000. The cabinets are not holding up well, according to the report, but school officials cannot say whether or how the saved money was used.

School officials often made attempts to either avoid soliciting competitive bids or to favor certain contractors, threatening the integrity of the bidding process. During the construction of Oklahoma Road Middle School, for example, there was a "conscious effort" to keep an excavation contract under $15,000 so it would not have to be reviewed by the school board and would not have to be put out to bid, the report states.

The report offered the public its first detailed look into issues that have tainted the image of the school system and diverted the school board's attention. The school board has been under pressure for months to respond to construction problems. Announcing in November that the grand jury was extending its inquiry indefinitely, Barnes called the five-member board "arrogant" and "indifferent" for failing to take action. Bennett, a former U.S. attorney, was hired a month later.

Progress

In an interview yesterday, Bennett commended school officials for confronting their problems.

"We appreciate the fact that no one impeded our inquiry," he said. "They should recognize that some of their problems can be remedied."

Bennett added: "The people of Carroll County can still have faith in the board and administration."

Superintendent William H. Hyde did not respond to requests for comment yesterday. Edmund O'Meally, an attorney who represents the school board, said school officials were still poring over the document.

Construction problems in the school system began to surface last year. Cranberry Station Elementary opened more than $2 million over budget (school officials dispute the figure and say it was closer to $1 million), and the original contractor, James W. Ancel, filed a $45 million defamation lawsuit against top school officials. That suit was settled in December, with the school system making no admission of guilt but agreeing to pay Ancel $60,000.

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