$2 million later Broward schools project in legal limbo, unfinished

$2 million later, Broward schools project is in legal limbo, unfinished

By Cara Fitzpatrick  August 14, 2011
Sun Sentinel

For three years, the Broward school district has allowed work to proceed on a $5.2 million office building in Pembroke Pines despite a deepening budget crisis that prompted at least one School Board member to question whether it was still needed.

Now the district has racked up $2 million in construction costs but has only an unfinished project, an expired contract and a potential legal and financial nightmare to show for it.

“We are stuck in a mess that should never have happened,” said Nora Rupert, who unsuccessfully tried to persuade fellow board members in June to consider shelving the project.

During the two months since then, Royal Concrete Concepts, of West Palm Beach, performed about $514,000 in work on the project, or about a quarter of the total. Company officials declined to comment on the controversy.

The project, near Stirling Road and Southwest 202nd Avenue, has been planned for more than a decade, and the School Board approved a building contract for it in April 2008. District officials said the new offices would save about $608,000 a year by decreasing the time that maintenance employees spent driving every day from other district offices to job sites.

But earlier this month, district auditors discovered that the contract for the project expired just 13 days after it was approved. Despite that, about eight months later, the school district staff gave the company the green light to start working, issuing a “notice to proceed.”

District officials said they were not sure why the expired contract was not noticed until now, but said they had not yet paid most of the $2 million.

Without a valid contract, J. Paul Carland II, the district’s general counsel, said Thursday, the district could risk a lawsuit from Royal Concrete if it called off the project altogether. He said it was also difficult to keep building without a legal agreement to spell out the price, deadlines and responsibilities of the district and the company.

“We just have to scramble,” Carland said.

Further complicating matters is how the project was financed, district officials say. The district used federal stimulus bonds, which cannot be used for salaries or school maintenance projects. To switch to another project, the district probably would have to come up with another $2 million, said Omar Shim, the district’s capital budget director.

Board member Ann Murray called the project a “total mess” that had been propelled by “gentlemen’s agreements” rather than with valid contracts and other documents. The district staff should have known there wasn’t an up-to-date contract, she said.

“It’s your job to sort this out,” she told interim superintendent Donnie Carter at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Carter, who declined to speak to the Sun Sentinel, put a temporary stop to work at the site last week. Tom Lindner, the district’s construction chief, said the project has gone through at least four project managers.

District officials gave Royal Concrete the go-ahead in May to pour the foundation, level the property and start erecting prefabricated buildings for the maintenance offices, Lindner told board members Tuesday. He said the project proceeded slowly because the district first wanted to finish school construction.

District officials also wanted to be closer to finishing a neighboring project, a controversial $18 million bus depot with office space, a bus wash and fueling station. When that was planned, district officials said the bus depot would cost about $4.5 million.

The district has used the site, at times, to store old buses. Lindner said the final building on the site is about 93 percent complete.

The price for the maintenance offices also has fluctuated. It was originally approved as a $4.8 million project. Lindner said he was not sure why the cost changed, but said the district still plans to use both facilities.

Board member Patricia Good said that at this point it is difficult to know what to do.

“Do you stop the project? Do you continue with the project? With what’s been raised, I don’t know,” she said.