Broward school construction: Problems persist despite years of reform attempts

Pembroke Pines

Accounting and Auditing

By Akilah Johnson South Florida Sun-Sentinel

4:36 p.m. EDT, October 9, 2009

Broward School District officials set out to build a new $4.5 million bus depot in Pembroke Pines in 2001, anticipating it would be complete in just over a year.

Eight years later, it is still not finished and the price tag has tripled to about $14 million. While buildings are up and buses are parked, work is still being done on the facades and irrigation system. Completion is not expected until April.

The story of the Southwest Area Bus Facility, auditors say, is typical of construction at the district: Small construction projects balloon into massive jobs through a series of change orders and amendments. In addition to missed deadlines and huge cost overages, the practice makes it difficult to track who requested the changes, why they were needed and who is responsible for payment.

As a result, auditors say, the district has long picked up the tab for errors and omissions that architects and engineers should be paying for. It is also bypasses competitive bids, which could net a better deal.

Change orders are expected with any project, construction experts say, and can range from something as simple as changing the carpet to actually overhauling the physical space. But they say it is a bad idea to use change orders, which amend the original contracts, to add things such as buildings to a job.

"By doing it this way, the citizens are not protected," said Gene Farmer, director of Florida International University's construction management undergraduate program. "It all goes back to the money."

District auditors say that since 2002, they have pointed out the problem more than a dozen times yet the practice persists.

Michael Garretson, the district's deputy superintendent of facilities and construction, agrees that the scope of work for a project should not be drastically increased with a change order or amendment and said he's told his staff as much.

"I've written memos time and time again," he said.

He said the new physical education building at J.P. Taravella High School in Coral Springs is proof his department is following recommendations. That contract is being rebid and not handled through change orders on an existing contract for a new school stadium.

Garretson said his department has asked School Board Attorney Ed Marko for a threshold on when it's OK to use a contract amendment or change order, and when it must be rebid. The legal departmen refused to do so, he said.

Marko told the district's audit committee in June such decisions must "be done on a case by case basis."

Garretson also said his department stopped using the change order category "other" in 2006, after auditors said it made it nearly impossible to determine if the change was due to an architect or engineer error, was required by state building codes, or was a district wish list item.

Chief Auditor Patrick Reilly said that did not solve the problem because "instead of calling it 'other,' they're calling it something else," such as "owner request" or "unforeseen condition."

For example, in February 2008, district documents show construction staff submitted an "owner request" for a change order on the Southwest Area Bus Facility project because "contractor did not include 10% overhead to original change order."

In 2001, the district paid $492,450 to ACAI Associates Inc. to design plans to build the bus depot. The deal was the district would simply reuse the drawings used to build the 20-acre West Central Bus Complex years earlier. The new depot, however, would be larger by 10 acres.

The deadline was July 2003, and it didn't take long for problems to start.

There wasn't enough money to cover rising construction costs. Also, the buildings needed to be modified to make room for more buses and bus drivers. Redesigns progressed over the next two years while the facilities department tried to get more money.

When the money was obtained, more design changes came, including two buildings, two diesel generators and six portables. ACAI's contract more than doubled to more than $1.2 million in six years.

As the design contract grew, so did the construction budget.

The School Board approved a $4.1 million contract with Ron Bergeron's company in February 2005 to do the construction work and gave him five months to finish. Then came a string of "unanticipated changes," a contract amendment and a stormy hurricane season that earned Bergeron's company, Bergeron Land Development Inc., an extra 35 months.

The project, however, still isn't done.

The total budget has grown to about $14 million for administrative buildings, maintenance garage, gas pumps and a washing station.

It costs about $25 million to build an elementary school.

Charlotte Greenbarg, a member of the district's audit committee, calls the problem "scope creep" and says it is "a favorite trick" of facilities' staff which does so under pressure from board members.

"They keep adding to the scope. We've been screaming about it for years," she said.

The construction department must appear before the audit committee next week to explain why the bus depot project has lagged and grown. This will be the second time it answers questions about the project; the first was in 2008.

While Garretson admits problems have plagued that project and others, he said overall his department has done a good job.

"But," he said, "there is no such thing as a perfect set of plans."

Staff Writer David Fleshler contributed to this report.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohnson@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4527.