Broward School Board to vote on privatizing school construction

Just about everybody at the Broward school district agrees the Facilities & Construction Department is dysfunctional — even project manager David Herrmann, who’s worked there nearly a decade and is fighting hard to keep his job.

“You know those commercials, where they say, ‘Are you tired of working with monkeys?’ ” Herrmann said. “Well, that’s what it’s like where I work.”

If Superintendent Robert Runcie has his way, more than half the facilities department (Herrmann included) is about to disappear. School Board members on Tuesday are set to vote on the privatization plan, in which the district will increasingly use for-profit companies — not in-house staff — to monitor multimillion-dollar construction projects.

The district hasn’t indicated what companies might be picked for such work.

Motivating the change, Runcie says: Due to state budget cuts, the district has substantially less money to spend on school construction and renovations — and a facilities department with a history of mistakes.

“I don’t see how we move forward with the same model that’s been here for years,” Runcie said. “Periodically, we just run into more and more problems.”

Two years ago, construction problems were the heart of a blistering state grand jury report. It found the district had wasted millions building an unnecessary Hollywood K-8 Montessori school, repeatedly chose contract methods that added as much as 30 percent to construction costs, and created extra facilities department jobs to reward “cronies” of either School Board members or top district administrators.

Though the grand jury found fault in facilities employees, its harsher criticism was reserved for School Board members who had bullied the department to get their pet projects built, or manipulated the company-selection process so that their campaign contributors received district work.

Flash forward to 2013, and the School Board is now composed mostly of new members who vow to restore integrity. Construction contracts, in response to the grand jury, now include many new safeguards.

But in the facilities department, the embarrassments continue.

A recently released internal district audit scolded the department for paying more than $1 million to a company, Jupiter-based Royal Concrete Concepts, for “work not delivered, installed or completed.” In a project rife with irregularities, the company had been hired to build a new maintenance facility in Pembroke Pines. It was later discovered that Royal Concrete was working under an expired contract. Runcie and the School Board ordered the project stopped, yet former Broward Chief Facilities and Construction Officer Tom Lindner pushed for it to continue, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement review.

The FDLE closed its investigation without filing criminal charges, though it noted in an August investigative report that “these practices and issues certainly raise questions as to the propriety of the entire process.”

Lindner abruptly resigned in December. His replacement as construction chief, Shelley Meloni, also signed off on the payments to Royal Concrete, though she argues in the recent audit that the district had no choice but to pay because the company prepared the modular buildings and precast panels it was hired for — Broward simply no longer wanted them.

“Withholding payment for this work (without legal justification) when we were not willing to accept delivery ... was not defensible and could have exposed the district to additional costs for unjustified delay of payment,” Meloni wrote to district auditors last month.

Under Runcie’s overhaul plan for facilities, Meloni and the project managers with highest seniority would keep their positions, while lower-level project managers and many clerical jobs would be axed. Herrmann, the project manager whose job is at risk, said it’s those at the top who should be shown the door.

“Don’t leave the existing management in place, it’s ludicrous,” Herrmann said.

Since assuming the top spot in facilities, Meloni, who did not return a call for comment, has seen her salary jump twice. Her pay increased from $106,883 to $117, 571 in December, and was bumped up again to $129,328 about two months later.

School Board member Katie Leach, who supports the facilities changes, noted that Meloni still makes about $30,000 less than her predecessor, and she said Meloni inherited the troubled Royal Concrete project.

“She has tried to clean up quite a mess that she didn’t necessarily create,” Leach said.

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