State lawmakers approve follow-up Leon County Schools construction projects governance audit

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State lawmakers have unanimously approved the follow-up audit of Leon County Schools, which will trigger another review of the district’s governance of prior construction projects, The Tallahassee Democrat reports.

“Auditors will also determine whether superintendent Jackie Pons and his administration implemented enough corrective actions to remedy the 28 separate findings cited on a 2014 Auditor General report. The state had found that LCS skirted statutes by bypassing the competitive selection of construction managers and architects for major school projects and mismanaged the selection of subcontractors,” the newspaper reported.

“I am absolutely concerned with the way (contracts) were manipulated,” said Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, alternating chairman of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee. “I want follow through on that — I want that question answered. I am livid over that.”

The newspaper says that David Winialski, legislative assistant to Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami — who chairs the Education Appropriations Subcommittee — delivered the request to committee members on the representative’s behalf.

The newspaper has reported that major construction projects at a half-dozen Leon County Schools were split into smaller contracts over the past several years to avoid a competitive-bidding process, with millions of dollars going to companies that have contributed to Superintendent Jackie Pons’ political campaigns, according to school-district documents.

In all cases, Pons recommended approval of the contracts, which each came in just under a $2-million threshold in state statute that would have triggered competitive bidding. All of the contracts were approved as part of the School Board’s consent agenda, where routine items appear requiring no discussion or debate.

However, an earlier review found no indications that Pons benefitted personally from the transactions.

In the more recent written request, dated Nov. 19, Fresen referred to the Tallahassee Democrat’s reporting of the FBI probe into the district’s contract practices, a 2014 Auditor General Report that included 28 separate findings and the spending of $150,000 in legal services rendered by a private law firm to conduct independent investigations of Pons and the School Board. He described the district’s predicament as a “most urgent matter.”

Tallahassee attorney Tim Jansen, who represents two school administrators turned whistle-blowers, district director Rocky Hanna — he could face Pons in the 2016 superintendent’s race — and former Lively Technical Center principal Woody Hildebrandt, spoke at the meeting to recommend the follow-up audit, the newspaper reported. Jansen offered the $500,000 spent “to remove dirt and bring it back” for a gymnasium project at Ghazvini Learning Center as an example of Pons’ mismanagement, the Dec. 1 article reported.

“What we discovered was more than alarming, it was troubling,” he said. “They say power corrupts, absolute power corrupts, unfettered power corrupts.”

Committee members agreed to re-examine the 28 findings, but would hone the audit’s focus on construction, rather than explore the legality or propriety of attorney fees. The follow-up report will not supersede the district’s scheduled 2017 audit.

If officials found a reason, however, to “expand the scope of their audit, that’s within their purview to do so,” Raulerson explained.

The newspaper in an earlier report said the projects in question included:

Griffin Middle School

  • Childers Construction, awarded contract totaling $1,868,943 in April 2011.
  • Culpepper Construction, awarded contract totaling $1,998,334 for one phase of the project in July 2010 and $1,984,808 for another in October 2010.

Killearn Lakes Elementary School

  • Baycrest Corporation, awarded contract for $20,000 in July 2012, amended in September 2012 for an additional $1,979,999, bringing the total to $1,999,999.
  • Pro-Steel Building, awarded contract for $19,856 in June 2012, amended in September 2012 for an additional $1,980,143.99, bringing the total to $1,999,999.99.

Gilchrist Elementary School

  • Southland Contracting, awarded contract for $1,999,782 in June 2012.
  • LLT Building Corporation, awarded contract for $1,998,960 in June 2012.

Kate Sullivan Elementary School

  • RAM Construction & Development, awarded contract for $17,134 in May 2012, amended in June 2012 for an additional $1,981,347, bringing the total to $1,998,481.
  • Culpepper Construction, awarded $76,000 contract in May 2012, amended in June 2012 for an additional $1,923,213 in June 2012, bringing the total to $1,999,213.
  • Childers Construction, awarded contract for $16,847 in May 2012, amended in June 2012 for an additional $1,983,065, bringing the total to $1,999,912.

Gretchen Everhart School

  • RAM Construction & Development, awarded contract for $66,885.86 in July 2011, amended for an additional $1,922,433.91 in October 2011, bringing the total to $1,989,319.77.

The Leon County Schools outlines its current contracting policies and rules on its website, indicating that the policies were revised in 2015, after the projects in question occurred.

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