By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org
Purchasing reforms enacted five years ago by the Broward School Board in the wake of corruption scandals would be bypassed amid a dispute over public participation in the selection of companies to manage $800 million in voter-approved bond projects.
The clash pits the administration of Superintendent Robert Runcie and the Facilities Task Force, a citizens-advisory group that monitors planning, construction and maintenance of school buildings.
The Broward School Board soon will have to take a side. The Facilities Task Force voted Thursday 14 to 1 to urge the School Board to require the district’s Qualification Selection Evaluation Committee (QSEC) evaluate and select the companies.
QSEC includes five voting members from the public. Runcie’s staff, however, wants to bypass QSEC and instead use a selection committee made up solely of school system administrators.
“I think the superintendent (Robert Runcie)…wants absolute control over what is going on,” task force chair Nathalie Lynch-Walsh told FloridaBulldog.org. “If you can’t control the public…you control the process…They are violating policy.”
BIRTH OF QSEC
Bidders are to be interviewed May 18 and whichever committee is used must make recommendations two days later. The School Board is set to award the contracts next month.
The School Board created QSEC in 2010 after Board Members Beverly Gallagher and Stephanie Kraft were arrested for corruption. In creating QSEC, the board barred board members from serving on it to prevent them from steering contracts to favorite companies.
In a May 5 email to board members, Lynch-Walsh wrote, “A district preaching about the virtues of transparency shouldn’t ask taxpayers for $800 million dollars then turn around and look for semantic technicalities to remove said taxpayers from the selection of the companies that will be managing the $800 million.”
She was referring to the Runcie administration’s statements in bid documents that it is looking to hire companies to serve as “program managers” instead of “construction managers.” School Board policy requires the hiring of “construction managers” to go through QSEC, but the policy is unclear regarding “program managers”.
At Thursday’s meeting, Lynch-Walsh argued that program managers and construction managers are “the same thing…A rose by any other name is still a rose.”
Derek Messier, the school district’s chief facilities officer, disagreed, saying program management is “not in the (QSEC) policy.” He also offered assurances that the public will be invited to attend the upcoming staff selection committee meetings.
An hour-long debate turned on tedious definitions. At times, it became testy.
Not going through QSEC to hire managers “looks really bad,” Lynch-Walsh said.
“It doesn’t look bad,” Messier replied. “You’re trying to make it look bad.”
“Nobody wants their money squandered,” Lynch-Walsh said.
“I’m not trying to squander anybody’s money,” Messier said. “I’ve been interrogated on this one topic…I feel like I’m going…to court to say, asked and answered…”
A ‘GOT TO WORK’ BOND ISSUE
Task force member Joe Piechura noted the significance of what was being discussed.
“This is a humongous, large, absolutely got to work bond issue. If they fall on their faces again, we are going to look so stupid to the world including the people that sponsored issuing this bond…If this gets screwed up…, it will slow any new construction, any repairs…,” Piechura said.
The task force, the Minority Builders Coalition and a local building association each appoint a public member to QSEC. The school administration appoints two.
School Board policy states that QSEC will evaluate and recommend for approval “architects, engineers, design-builders, construction managers and total program managers.” Runcie’s administration, however, argues that “total program managers” are not the same as “program managers.”
In an interview, Lynch-Walsh complained that the administration also bypasses QSEC if only one company bids for a contract. The School Board already has awarded contracts to two design companies who were sole bidders. Lynch-Walsh said nothing in School Board policy allows for this to happen. Since QSEC did not evaluate the sole bidders, the proposals were not evaluated or were evaluated by the staff, she added.
Nick Sakhnovsky has been on the task force for more than ten years. “What they have done…is bizarre,” he said. “We have never done it that way in Broward County.”
Sakhnovsky, the task force vice chair, pointed out that QSEC was created “to make the process more transparent and less controllable by deals made outside the room…We have long memories.”
He was referring to critical grand jury reports going back two decades. In 2011, a statewide grand jury described the School Board as inept and corrupted by “contractors, vendors and their lobbyists.” County grand juries in 1997 and 2002 likewise criticized how the school district conducted business.
Runcie was hired in 2011 following the statewide grand jury’s damning report.
School Board member Nora Rupert, Runcie’s biggest critic on the board, wants QSEC involved in selecting construction program professionals.
“There is no public representation on the (staff) committee,” she said. “To this day I have not heard any sound explanation…that makes sense not to go through QSEC.”
SCHOOL BOARD GENERAL COUNSEL DOESN’T RESPOND
Lynch-Walsh also took aim at School Board general counsel J. Paul Carland, alleging he failed to respond to an April 16 task force request for a legal opinion on whether the selection of “program managers” falls under QSEC’s jurisdiction.
Previously, Carland told the board that bypassing QSEC “doesn’t appear to be a…violation,” but acknowledged his opinion was based on Superintendent Runcie’s interpretation of policy, not his own. He said he would need to research the issue, but has yet to provide the board with his own opinion.
Carland would not be interviewed about the matter.
When asked about the lack of a legal opinion, Messier told the task force he got a legal opinion but he would not share it with the group. “The legal department has to send it out to you,” Messier said.
The administration’s search for program managers, posted April 13, is the second time it has sought bids. In March, the School Board rejected the selection of Jacobs Project Management Company after whistleblower Michael Marchetti, a former special assistant to the superintendent, went public with claims the company had violated the district’s “Cone of Silence” policy.
The Cone of Silence policy prohibits bidders from talking to any School Board member or district employee except “designated staff…until the contract is awarded by the School Board.”
The school administration took no action on Marchetti’s claims until FloridaBulldog.org sought comment about them. The district then posted a notice reversing its recommendation to give the contract to Jacobs, citing the company’s violation of the Cone of Silence policy.
Marchetti also alleged that Messier bypassed QSEC and handpicked amenable administrators to sit on an ad hoc committee that selected Jacobs for the contract.
Jacobs Project Management is a subsidiary of the international engineering, architecture and construction firm Jacobs Engineering Group, headquartered in Pasadena, California.
Marchetti claimed the selection of Jacobs was done behind closed doors and violated Florida’s open meetings laws.
When the district asked for rebids last month, the administration split the contract into two. The program management contracts are estimated to be worth as much as $20 million.