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Broward Schools construction program woes cloud vote on $800 million bond issue

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org schoolconstruction

Three years after a scathing grand jury report about the Broward school district’s construction program, community activists are raising concerns about the management of future construction projects should voters approve an $800 million public schools bond issue in November.

They are apprehensive because the school district earlier this year approved a one-year contract for a subsidiary of URS, a large construction services firm with a controversial track record of managing a number of construction projects.

The contract award, they said, was preceded by a disputed bid tabulation that did not include disclosure of URS’s problems on past projects.

Nathalie Lynch-Walsh

Nathalie Lynch-Walsh

“The evaluation process is flawed and…has to be fixed,” said Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, chair of the district’s Facilities Task Force who was upset that past work experience was not taken into consideration when URS Corporation Southern received the one-year contract. She said the fix must come soon in case the bond issue is approved and the district needs to hire a company to manage it.

Charlotte Greenbarg, a member of the task force when the board awarded the contract, said URS has had problems in various cities around the country. She said, “I would have concern” about any firm that wanted to manage the bond issue construction program without an airing of any of their past problems.

URS Corporation, the parent company, has paid more than $100 million in the past five years to settle construction problems on projects it was involved with, according to published reports.

The district will likely seek outside construction management after eliminating approximately half of its 28 construction project managers. This was done eight months before the district awarded the contract to URS.

LACK OF OVERSIGHT

In 2011, a statewide grand jury sharply criticized the Broward district and its facilities division for lack of oversight and handling of bids. Two former board members were arrested on corruption charges. In the wake of that report, then-superintendent James Notter retired, resulting in a nationwide search and the hiring of Robert Runcie.

The controversy involving the URS contract began unfolding at the Sept. 18 meeting of the district’s Qualification Selection Evaluation Committee (QSEC). Four firms, including URS, made presentations and were interviewed for a $1.75 million construction management contract.

The committee of mostly district officials, along with business and community figures, including Lynch-Walsh, rated the firms as follows: AECOM Technical Services, 1,131 points; URS, 1,095; Jacobs Project Management Co., 1,074; and B&A-CPM, 895.

The committee’s minutes state that a two-way tie was declared between AECOM and URS because each received five first-place votes. District policy, however, refers to total points as the main scoring method; there is no mention of first-place votes being a factor.

The minutes show the QSEC chair and staff then discussed the issue with legal counsel. The meeting was later adjourned until the following week without a selection.

At the reconvened meeting on Sept. 25, district staff announced that AECOM and Jacobs were disqualified because the firms violated various district policies related to the so-called “Cone of Silence,” which limits communications by participants to prevent undue influence.

While the minutes are not specific, Lynch-Walsh said persons associated with the two firms apparently phoned or sent emails about the controversy to a board member’s office or others outside the authorized group.

District staff then recommended URS, which the committee approved, with eight of the 10 members in favor. Lynch-Walsh was opposed and another committee member, Brian Johnson, abstained, according to the minutes.

The URS recommendation was sent to Runcie, who agreed.

URS GETS ONE-YEAR CONTRACT

In January, the school board awarded URS a one-year contract, with two one-year options. There was no mention of the voting controversy at the board meeting, according to board minutes.

The school board and Runcie went ahead with the vote even though the Facilities Task Force had urged the district to set aside the URS recommendation because of the mix-up.

The Facilities Task Force, also comprised of district and community representatives, was established to oversee actions of the district’s controversial facilities department in the wake of criticism of construction activities.

Runcie was unavailable for comment, but the district’s public information office released a response statement noting that while a tie was initially declared, AECOM was disqualified prior to its resolution. The statement said there was an opportunity for disqualified firms to file a protest, but none did.

The district is “working to include a requirement for all proposers to provide a work history as part of the evaluation criteria,” the statement said.

URS currently oversees 37 construction-related projects under the current one-year contract with the district, according to a district document.

In May, four months after it approved the URS contract, the school board also approved placing an $800 million bond issue on the November ballot. The money would be used for technology improvements and capital projects.

URS’s woes elsewhere have been outlined in various published articles, including a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

  • In 2004, a URS-designed pier that supported an elevated section of road on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Tampa sank 11 feet into the ground, causing the span to crash. Two workers were injured. State transportation officials found that URS did not test shafts deep enough into the ground to support the expressway’s foundation. Hundreds of piers designed by URS were reconstructed and the project was delayed by a year. The company agreed to a $75 million settlement in 2009.
  • In 2007, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring more than 140. Victims alleged in a lawsuit that URS, a consultant to the Minnesota Department of Transportation on the project, failed to detect the bridge’s flaws. URS settled the case in 2010 for $52.4 million.
  • In 2008, URS subsidiary Washington Savannah River Co. agreed to pay the federal government $2.4 million to settle a fraud allegation.
  • In 2010, a U.S. energy department report concluded that URS workers felt pressured by supervisors to ignore safety issues and hurriedly finish demolition and cleanup work at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in upstate New York. Those actions led to the “uncontrolled spread of radioactive contamination” into the air and the Mohawk River, the government found. URS denied it had pushed employees to overlook safety, but was later fined $1.8 million.
  • In January 2012, URS paid $2.3 million to resolve allegations by Massachusetts that a senior engineer submitted false and padded invoices to the state Port Authority during its renovation work at Logan International Airport.

That’s not all. The Los Angeles Times has reported that in 2013 a senior scientist who worked for URS for 44 years was fired after he warned about design flaws at one of the largest facilities to treat radioactive waste in Hanford, Wash. The story said the concerns raised by scientist Walter Tamosaitis, were confirmed by federal investigators and work was halted while federal officials began to address a wide range of plan design problems.

Ironically, the disqualified AECOM may soon reemerge in the Broward School district’s construction program.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that AECOM Technology Corp., the parent of AECOM Technical Services, has agreed to purchase URS Corp. for $6 billion. The deal is expected to close in October, a company spokesperson said. The company would then control URS’s existing agreements, including the $1.75 million district contract.

In May, the Miami-Dade Commission awarded AECOM a $91 million, five-year contract to oversee sewer pipe repairs totaling $1.6 billion.

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Latest comments

  • Great research and reporting, Bill! This debacle exemplifies why that bond issue needs to be defeated. The district simply isn’t worthy of public trust, and it’s all about trust.

    If they get money, it’ll go the way all the rest of the bond issues went, as several Grand Juries have exposed and railed against.

  • County officials never fully disclosed URS mismanagement of Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood Airport Construction Expansion projects from late 1990s until after the projects completion. URS allowed sub-consultants to run misdeeds exhibiting limited to no control.

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