School board sees plan on construction

System staff suggests ways to fix department problems

`Significant positive steps'

Resident announces injunction attempt at Westminster project

May 11, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County school board got its first look last night at a staff plan to correct deficiencies in a troubled school construction department that remains mired in lawsuits and a grand jury investigation.

Before the board heard the presentation, a county resident announced his intention to seek a court injunction against the school system to stop construction of the new Westminster High School.

Margaret Pfaff, Carroll's elementary education supervisor and a team of five salaried school system employees spent "countless hours" -- including nights and weekends -- reviewing and checking for accuracy in the internal investigative report of the troubled school construction department.

Released in March, the 100-page document characterized the department as hampered by chaotic recordkeeping and haphazard decision-making.

The school system paid the Baltimore law firm of Miles & Stockbridge $213,915 for the report, which was prepared by former Maryland U.S. Attorney Richard D. Bennett and a group of lawyers and former FBI agents.

Using the findings of the Bennett report as goals to be addressed, Pfaff's team made 29 specific recommendations, including creating standardized bid documents, budgeting spreadsheets, hiring an internal schools auditor and reducing the workload of a key administrator.

Last night's 45-minute presentation had a decidedly positive spin.

Pfaff mentioned three times a single paragraph from the Bennett report regarding "significant positive steps taken in the past 18 months to remedy some of these problems" documented in the report and repeatedly referred to changes under way to make additional improvements.

"This statement clearly indicates that those responsible for school construction have used their individual and collective expertise and experience to move the department in a positive direction," Pfaff told the board in concluding her remarks. "This is testimony to the commitment of the Carroll County public schools staff to restore the public's trust and to earn respect."

Concerning the new Westminster High, Marcel J. van Rossum of South Carroll said he expects to seek a temporary injunction to prevent the school system from proceeding with the $35.4 million project until all the proper permits have been issued.

He said a Maryland Department of the Environment inspector would likely visit the construction site off Center Street just outside Westminster today.

"They've started to level trees and move earth without any permits and if the MDE finds any irregularities, they will put a stop order on that," van Rossum said.

School officials said that no work that needs a permit has begun.

During her presentation, Pfaff indicated that she had taken on more of an advisory role to the team analyzing the report rather than suggesting her own solutions.

Pfaff's team consisted of assistant superintendent of administration Vernon F. Smith Jr., school support services director Kathleen Sanner, construction supervisor Raymond Prokop, purchasing officer Nancy Codner and comptroller Bradley Martin.

All but the comptroller are mentioned in Bennett's report.

Asked why a check of Miles & Stockbridge's work was needed, school board president C. Scott Stone has said, "There may be additional information that the board wants to be aware of to get a more complete picture."

Pfaff's team made 22 factual corrections and six supplemental explanations of information in the Bennett report.

Corrections included the wrong name of an attorney representing a couple suing the school system to an explanation as to why invoice amounts for top soil at Oklahoma Road Middle School appear to have been kept below the $15,000 threshold that requires review by the board.

Copies of Pfaff's 51-page report and 50 pages of exhibits were not made available to the public until 8 o'clock last night.

School officials had said the report could not be released earlier because staff would be working on the document right up until the 5 p.m. board meeting. But at 3 p.m., the report was finished with copies piled on the desk of at least one department director.

Copies of the report will be available today or tomorrow at county public libraries.

The school board will hold a public work session at 2 p.m. July 5 to discuss the Bennett report and Pfaff's recommendations. It will be the board's first discussion of the matter since the March 27 release of Bennett's report.

A day after the release of the report, school board members directed Superintendent William H. Hyde to attend their next meeting with an "action plan" for enacting reforms in the construction department.

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