Members of school construction review are criticized

Carroll County officials mentioned in report are on team drafting solutions


May 14, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

When Carroll County Board of Education President C. Scott Stone tapped someone to lead the school system's effort to straighten out its troubled construction department, he wanted an employee with no connection to problems that propelled school officials into multimillion-dollar lawsuits and a grand jury investigation.

His choice of elementary education supervisor Margaret Pfaff, he said at the time, was a direct response to public requests that the construction department staff and upper-level administrators criticized in an internal investigative report not be involved in correcting the problems.

But as Pfaff's project began, the former elementary school principal became an overseer to a team of five school administrators, leaving the responsibility of formulating recommendations and suggesting solutions to the same employees Stone had said he sought to exclude.

"You're going to have to put this in the hands of an outside body to look at this and straighten it out," South Carroll resident Marcel J. van Rossum told the school board before Pfaff presented her team's recommendations and "plan for continuous improvement" at last week's board meeting. "You can't do it internally. It's wrong."

A day after the March 27 release of a 100-page report that characterized the school construction department as wasteful and hampered by haphazard decision-making, school board members directed Superintendent William H. Hyde to attend their next meeting with an "action plan."

But residents and PTA members questioned whether Hyde could objectively draft a plan to correct problems that occurred under his supervision.

Residents raise issue

Five days later, the superintendent removed himself from the effort, and he and Stone appointed Pfaff to lead the analysis and review of the report prepared by former U.S. Attorney Richard D. Bennett and a group of lawyers and former FBI agents.

Some community members "are saying, `Sheesh, if they're criticized in the report, is it reasonable for them to be part of the solution?' " Stone said after he announced the appointment of Pfaff last month. "So the question became how to demonstrate to the community that the board is taking this report seriously and to reflect the best interests of the school system."

Some parents and school board member Susan W. Krebs remained skeptical that any school employee could evaluate a report that details the blunders of her colleagues and superiors -- including the superintendent. Others questioned the appropriateness of choosing someone with no experience in procurement laws or construction to develop a plan to correct problems relating to construction.

Pfaff alluded to that criticism Wednesday night, explaining that she had played no role in suggesting ways to fix a department with which she has had no experience. Rather, she took responsibility for the format and content of her team's report, ensured that their analysis was thorough, provided oversight to the development of recommendations and kept Stone updated on the team's progress.

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.

With the exception of the comptroller, Pfaff's team members are among the most frequently mentioned school employees in Bennett's investigative report.

Smith, who was then school support services director, is mentioned about 190 times in 100 pages, second to Lester Surber, who oversaw the construction department from 1987 to 1997 and is mentioned about 350 times in Bennett's report. While Smith has been promoted to assistant superintendent, Surber was demoted to safety assistant in the plant operations department.

Included in Pfaff's 51-page report and 50 pages of exhibits is a chapter titled "Construction Office Strengths" in which the team reports that "it must be emphasized that upper levels of school administration have been very supportive of the changes made in the construction office and continue to encourage recommendations for improvement."

The team offers 29 recommendations -- from creating standardized budgeting spreadsheets to hiring an internal schools auditor -- to improve the coordination, planning, financial workings and recordkeeping of the school construction department.

The group also included 22 corrections to Bennett's report, from the trivial -- the wrong name of an attorney representing a couple suing the school system -- to the substantive -- though investigators wrote that the school system spent $173,000 on a retaining wall, the wall was never built and school officials never spent a penny on it.

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