More controversy as Broward looks to begin $800 million school construction program

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

Pictures of water build up under a leaky roof in an outside hallway at Fort Lauderdale's Northeast High School that were used to push for passage of last year's bond issue. Photo: NBC6

Pictures of water build up under a leaky roof in an outside hallway at Fort Lauderdale’s Northeast High School that were used to push for passage of last year’s bond issue. Photo: NBC6

The controversy surrounding the Broward School District’s $800-million bond construction program continues with an allegation of another Sunshine Law violation, and a question as to why the same company was ranked first for two offsetting contracts designed to check and balance each other.

Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, chair of the district’s civilian-advisory Facilities Task Force, accused the district of the Sunshine Law violation in a June 6 email to the school board. Her complaint later prompted school officials to hold another meeting in an attempt to “cure” the apparent violation.

Lynch-Walsh claimed the district violated the sunshine law on June 2 after two selection committees specially created to choose who will oversee bond-issue spending announced they’d “shortlisted” companies for three lucrative contracts to manage the district-wide construction projects.

“Nothing was said during the committee meetings,” Lynch-Walsh said in an interview. “They didn’t discuss how they got their scores. There was no discussion. No firms were identified. They silently wrote scores down (ranking the companies)…No vote was taken.”

The Facilities Task Force, whose chair in the past has frequently participated in the vetting of contractors for the district, unanimously voted during its June 4 meeting to have Lynch-Walsh send its concerns to the school board.

Although the committee meetings were open to the public and were broadcast on the school district’s Internet TV channel, only staff participated. Lynch-Walsh has maintained that members of the public, such as herself, should be on the selection committees.

The Florida Constitution says all formal government actions shall be discussed and transacted during public meetings.

BOND ISSUE OVERWHELMINGLY APPROVED

Broward voters overwhelmingly approved the $800 million bond referendum last November in large part to repair aging schools with leaky roofs, failing air conditioning systems and other problems. Funds will also be used for a variety of other purposes like replacing portable classrooms with permanent structures. To finance the bonds, the average homeowner will pay another $50 a year in property taxes.

The companies are competing to get one of three multi-million dollar contracts. Two companies will be selected to be “owner’s representatives,” who will manage the construction projects for the district. A third company will be chosen to oversee cost and program control services.

Five companies submitted bids to be owner’s representatives and three companies submitted bids to handle the cost and program controls contract.

The two selection committees met again June 16 where they again scored and ranked the bidders. The scores that time were made public, although nothing was said on whether the top scoring companies would be recommended for the contracts.

But a June 18 document found online revealed the selection committee recommended that Skanska USA Building and second choice Heery International, headquartered in Atlanta, be awarded the contracts to be the owner’s representatives.

Skanska, a New York-based subsidiary of the Swedish multinational construction and development firm Skanska AB, was also the top choice to get the contract to oversee cost and program controls.

Lynch-Walsh, in a June 17 email to task force members, called the previous day’s selection committee meetings as “a bad sequel to an equally bad movie.” She said district purchasing agent Phil Kaufold, who headed the meetings, “read primarily from a prewritten script, with (school board) attorney Bob Vignola sitting right next to him, correcting every deviation from the script.” The purpose, she said, was an attempt “at curing the apparent sunshine law violations.”

“It is not in fact cured,” Lynch-Walsh later told the school board at its June 23 meeting. “There was no full re-examination of the issues, but appeared to be committee members just copying their scores from whatever they did in private…”

Tracy Clark, the school district’s public information officer, confirmed in an email to FloridaBulldog.org that the follow-up meeting was intended to repair any potential illegality.

“The allegation of a sunshine violation was taken very seriously; additional meetings were held to cure any potential sunshine law concerns,” said Clark, noting the meetings were public and broadcast on the district’s website.

BOARD EXPECTED TO APPROVE CONTRACTS THIS MONTH

Whoever Superintendent Robert Runcie decides should get the three contracts, school officials must negotiate details and costs of the contracts before they are presented to the school board for approval. School Board member Nora Rupert said during an interview that the board expects to approve the contracts on July 28.

A district selection committee recommended last December that the entire job of managing the capital projects go to one company – Jacobs Project Management. The school board threw out the selection after FloridaBulldog.org reported last March that Michael Marchetti, former special assistant to the superintendent who recently retired, claimed that Derek Messier, the district’s chief facilities officer, had rigged the bidding behind closed doors to give the work to Jacobs. Marchetti also claimed Jacobs executives violated the district’s Cone of Silence policy regarding improper contact with school officials.

Jacobs did not rebid for the three contracts. Jacobs is a subsidiary of Jacobs Engineering Group of Pasadena, California.

After rejecting Jacobs’ selection for violating the Cone of Silence policy, the school board decided on March 17 to use three companies instead of one to mitigate risk and to add additional controls.

With Skanska being ranked number one to be both an owners representative and to handle cost and control services, Lynch-Walsh asked Messier in an email, “Would you please clarify how having the same firm for both owners rep and cost and program controls fulfills the checks and balances…”

Messier replied in a June 18 email, saying he could not discuss the issue citing the district’s Cone of Silence policy that prevents active bidders or their representatives from contacting certain school officials.

Lynch-Walsh shot back in an email claiming the Cone of Silence does not apply to her since she is neither a bidder nor a lobbyist. “You appear to be using the cone of silence as the 5th Amendment.” Messier did not reply to that email.

“If the intent of splitting (the work)…is to provide for better oversight, I don’t see having two (of the contracts) be awarded to one company,” Board member Rupert said during an interview. “The end result is the same as having one (contract).”

But after Lynch-Walsh raised questions at a school board meeting about awarding both of those contracts to Skanska, school officials posted another document online that said the committee’s recommendation to award that third contract was postponed until July 15.

The controversy over who will be hired to oversee the massive bond issue construction program led to testy words at last week’s school board hearing.

Lynch-Walsh accused the board of failing to follow policy governing the selection of companies. “What we expect from the board is very simple,” she said. “You don’t have to storm a beach in Normandy. You simply need to be aware of state statutes and your own board policies.”

Retired public middle school principal Rebecca Dahl echoed Lynch-Walsh. “When it goes to (a future) grand jury, there is plenty of evidence to show we are not following the rules,” she said, adding that the bond construction projects were behind schedule.

The school board and Superintendent Robert Runcie sat in stony silence after Lynch-Walsh spoke. But after Dahl’s comment about a grand jury drew some applause from the audience, Runcie defended his administration.

“There is a process you have to go through to…secure the funds for the bond,” he said. “The election doesn’t happen and the next day you have funding for the bond. That’s not how it works, that’s not how it’s ever been communicated.”

Runcie said he expected bond-financed construction to begin sometime this summer or this fall.

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2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. The state needs to put in an Oversight Committee. Long overdue.

    Great work by Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, M.B.A., Ph.D. and the Facilities Task Force.

  2. Charlene says:

    Take a look at Ft. Lauderdale High School. Work is still not completed. Large condo and apt. buildings have been built and occupied since their construction began. Why? Incompetence.

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