|TWO SCHOOL BOARDS’ DERELICTION OF DUTY!|
By Scott Travis - Sun Sentinel
Delays and problems have plagued Broward County school construction projects in recent months, raising concerns about whether the district can effectively manage projects in the voter-approved $800 million bond..
Nine months after receiving approval to issue bonds to fix decaying schools and improve technology, little work has been done. After initially saying construction would begin this summer, district officials have yet to bid out any major projects. Several projects funded before the bond passed also have been slow to materialize.
"I have grave concerns, and I hope the superintendent can address these in a timely manner," School Board member Nora Rupert said, adding that delays often increase costs.
Roofing projects at two of the oldest and most deteriorated schools, Northeast High in Oakland Park and Stranahan High in Fort Lauderdale, are at least two years behind schedule. Northeast still has its old leaking roof despite facilities officials declaring it in need of immediate repair in 2013.
An aluminum canopy at Plantation High, planned after district officials decided they couldn't afford to renovate the school's cafeteria, is more than a year behind schedule. The district has changed the scope of the project, and now the price has doubled to $273,000.
Modular classrooms at two Parkland elementary schools, funded from money the city collected from developers, won't be ready in September as required in an initial contract. City officials plan to ask for their money back if work doesn't begin soon.
"It's certainly not a good sign" for how well the district can execute the bond, Parkland Mayor Michael Udine said. "It just doesn't look good. It doesn't feel right."
District officials acknowledge snags, but remain committed to effectively managing the bond work and other capital projects.
"These have been challenges, but not show stoppers," district spokeswoman Tracy Clark said. "We're learning and refining our processes and most importantly, we are focused on getting these critical repairs done in our schools."
So far, the only tangible results of the bond are at Hawkes Bluff Elementary in Davie. The school has received $152,000 worth of computers and networks. Technology projects are underway at 16 other schools, according to status reports on a district bond website.
Most major bond construction work will begin after the district hires a management company to oversee the work, said Jeff Moquin, the district's chief of staff. A proposal is scheduled to go before the School Board Aug. 18.
An initial company favored for that work was disqualified in March due to a violation of the "cone of silence" -- a period when project bidders are not allowed to talk to certain school district staff. This forced the district to start over.
Once construction began, many expected Northeast High's $16 million in repairs and Stranahan's $18 million to receive priority. Both aging schools were placed on year one of a five-year plan because of their dire needs, which included new roofs, air conditioning systems and outdated facilities.
But when a project list of $63 million in renovations at 14 schools was presented to the School Board in June, neither school was on there.
Moquin said the 14 schools had already been assigned to a management company handling certain projects funded before the bond passed.
While money had been allocated for roofing work at Northeast and Stranahan, and work was scheduled to begin two years ago, the scope of these projects increased dramatically and they will be managed by a company focusing on bond projects, Moquin said. Construction is expected to begin at both schools in June.
Another project facing delays is the installation of seven modular classrooms at Heron Heights and Park Trails elementaries in Parkland. The $2 million project is being funded by the city, not the bond.
The project has been put to bid three times. The first time, no one responded. The second time, one company responded but violated the "cone of silence," Moquin said. The third time, five responded, but the top scoring company came $1 million over budget.
Under state rules, the bidding process must focus on contractor qualifications, not price, Moquin said. But since the district can't afford the top choice, it will consider the second-ranked contractor on Aug. 19, Moquin said.
Frustrated by the delays, the city put a provision in an amended contract allowing it to get its money back unless the district has a vendor by Sept. 16.
"If I hire you to help me build something, and I've already paid you in advance and you never do it, at some point I've got to get my money back from you," Mayor Udine said.
The delays angered School Board member Robin Bartleman.
"We have money and we can't get classrooms," she said. "We're not going to get millions of dollars like this for free again. We're going to have egg on our face if we don't get this done."
Moquin said district officials can't stop vendors from violating rules. But they are doing outreach to attract a larger pool of contractors, so that one problem doesn't derail the process.
Some other problems have also threatened to hurt the bond process.
The district's purchasing department, which writes contracts and requests for bids, has been plagued by turnover. Two of three construction specialist positions are vacant. District officials say they are working aggressively to fill those and are looking at the skills of existing staff.
The district's Bond Oversight Committee, created to monitor the progress of bond projects, is off to a rocky start. Representatives of nine community groups make up the committee, but only four showed up at the first meeting, one shy of a quorum. Three organizations have backed out of serving on the committee, citing potential conflicts of interest. District officials say they expect a quorum at the next committee meeting, Aug. 31, and will consider possible new representatives.
Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, the chairwoman of the Facilities Task Force, has criticized the district's bid selection process, saying some meetings have violated the state Sunshine Law and district policies. Moquin said the district works to fix any errors it knows about.
"I see some of the issues we're having as an opportunity to strengthen the processes and make them better, so when we get into a heightened level of execution of the bond, we won't have the same issues," he said.