Work Paid For, Undone

Numerous repairs to city school buildings are falsely reported

Sun Exclusive

June 06, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

Spot checks by state inspectors found that Baltimore school employees falsely reported making promised building repairs and permitted shoddy work on multiple renovation projects, according to confidential documents obtained by The Sun.

The inspectors found new windows that were cut to the wrong size, leaving gaps at the top, and new doors installed in rusty old frames although new frames had been paid for.

Their findings have sent top school system officials scrambling to correct hundreds of problems ranging from a leaky roof to an empty fire extinguisher to a toilet not secured to the floor.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in Wednesday's editions that accompanied an article about Baltimore school buildings incorrectly reported when the photograph was taken. The photograph of Blaine Lipski at Harlem Park Elementary School was taken May 31, more than a month after he started his job as executive director of facilities for the Baltimore school system.
The Sun regrets the error.

The city school system's chief operating officer, J. Keith Scroggins, has vowed to hold accountable the people on his staff who didn't make the repairs they said they had, and those who didn't check behind contractors. He said he has already taken disciplinary action against at least one person in management, though he could not offer specifics.

"Unfortunately, it was just a total breakdown," said Scroggins, who has assigned one of his top deputies to address the state's findings and is withholding money from two contractors. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong."

David Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program, said he is pleased with Scroggins' response and confident that he wasn't knowingly conveying false information.

At the same time, Lever said, a lack of accountability is "very entrenched" in the culture of the city school system, which is slated to receive nearly $53 million in state money for renovation projects in the coming fiscal year.

"It's a huge problem that Mr. Scroggins has," Lever said.

Last fall, two employees from Lever's office performed routine maintenance inspections at 40 city schools, part of a program to ensure that schools throughout Maryland are well kept. About 230 of the state's 1,400 public schools are inspected each year.

The inspectors found 585 building deficiencies in the 40 Baltimore schools, some minor and others potential safety hazards. In the winter, the school system reported back to the state that many of the issues had been, or were in the process of being, corrected.

In February and March, the inspectors returned to five of the schools to see whether the corrections had, in fact, occurred. They discovered that nearly two-thirds of the repairs that the system said it had made -- 52 out of 82 -- were incomplete or not done at all.

At WEB DuBois High, for instance, the system said it had repaired cracked and broken windows, but the inspector noted that windows were still broken, some wouldn't stay shut and some were tied shut. Fire extinguishers remained locked in closets.

"This is an appalling discovery," Lever wrote in an April 16 memo to state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, marked "confidential" but obtained by The Sun.

In the memo, Lever went on to say that he did not believe senior administrators knew they were submitting false information to the state, but rather that they were not auditing the data they received from their employees.

He said in a recent interview that Scroggins and the school system's new facilities director have been working hard to fix the problems since he informed them of the inspectors' findings in late April.

Grasmick echoed Lever's sentiments, saying that Scroggins and interim schools Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston are willing to work with the state to correct a grave and long-standing situation.

"Keith Scroggins took this very seriously," Grasmick said. "We don't doubt that. But, obviously, it has to be remedied. It can't continue."

Lever and Grasmick expressed concerns about how their confidential correspondence was provided to the media. The memo, along with other state inspection documents the newspaper reviewed, reveals a pattern of mismanagement involving city school buildings.

In several cases, contractors did not complete work they were paid to do at schools, or they performed the work badly, the documents show.

At Hampden Elementary, at least 12 new windows were left with three-quarter-inch gaps that allowed cold air into classrooms during the winter, and new doors were installed in old, rusty frames. At Garrison Middle, a new chiller still was not working four years after installation.

At Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle, site of a $148,000 door-replacement project, new doors came in the wrong color, clashing with existing doors beside them. "There are doors with no closures, doors that don't lock, locks with no keys, bathroom doors with no closures," said an April 13 memo sent to Lever by one of his inspectors. "The new auditorium doors have had no handles since [being] installed in September."

Writing to Grasmick three days later, Lever said: "These failures to properly complete work not only represent a waste of significant investment funds, but in some cases can lead to deterioration of the building fabric and potential harms to the occupants."

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