Broward schools

Broward Schools’ facilities department faces criticism over outsourcing deal


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After eight Broward charter schools closed last year and another three so far this year, Broward School Board members are calling for beefed-up state regulations when it comes to charter operators. School Board members on Tuesday expressed support for greater financial requirements for charters before they’re allowed to open — such as placing safety-net money in a secured escrow account. The district plans to lobby for this and other charter changes during next year’s legislative session.

The Broward school district’s attempt to outsource much of its facilities department — a move designed to restore credibility — has instead raised new questions.

Earlier this year, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie announced a massive overhaul of the construction and maintenance department, which has repeatedly been embroiled in scandals over unethical practices and wasteful spending.

Outsourcing was pitched as the fix. Broward would hire an outside project management company to supervise the district’s school repairs and renovations — a change that cost dozens of district employees their jobs.

But in the first key task — picking an outside management company — Broward is yet again dealing with controversy. The district’s selection process was marked by numerous irregularities that have prompted citizen activists and Broward’s internal auditor to raise red flags.

“We can’t even handle the process of outsourcing,” said Broward parent Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, who served on the district’s selection committee. “We’re falling down on step one.”

Broward’s Facilities Task Force, a citizen oversight group, recently passed a vote stating that it shares the concerns of Lynch-Walsh, who is one of its members.

Runcie is expected to recommend a course of action next month. If the superintendent decides that the selection process was fundamentally flawed, he could start all over and invite interested companies to once again submit proposals. Runcie said Tuesday that he is still reviewing the issue and hasn’t made up his mind.

“We have to get it right,” Runcie said. “I think it’s very important, as we move forward in rebuilding the trust and integrity in our facilities and construction management area, that we are ensuring that everything we do has integrity to it.”

Lynch-Walsh, who complained about the process to School Board members on Tuesday, said the right move for Broward is to start over.

The key complaints made by her and others: Broward’s guidelines for picking a company were so murky that when a tie occurred between two first-place firms, the district didn’t immediately know what to do. As Broward’s legal staff worked for days to find a solution, two of the companies being considered were suddenly disqualified.

That left San Francisco-based URS as the winning company by default. Months ago, before the selection process began, Broward district leaders had publicly mentioned that they considered URS a strong candidate. The company performs similar work for Orlando’s school district.

In the initial ranking of firms, URS was tied with Aecom Technical Services, but Aecom and another company were then disqualified for improper communications with School Board members and staff.

Based on that disqualification, the selection committee picked URS last month. At that vote, some on the committee asked for proof that the other two companies had broken the rules. No documentation was provided but school district staff insisted the violations had indeed taken place.

During that back-and-forth, one of the district’s in-house auditors also attempted to speak up in support of committee members’ demands for written proof, according to a Sept. 27 memo written by the Office of Chief Auditor Patrick Reilly. That auditor was scolded by Public Safety Director Jerry Graziose for trying to get involved, according to the memo.

While the auditor wasn’t allowed to speak, the district was more flexible with some selection committee members when it came time to vote. The district allowed three people on the committee to vote even though they had missed both prior meetings when the competing companies were actually evaluated. All three voted for URS.

The auditor’s memo called those three votes a “questionable practice.”

District activist Charlotte Greenbarg is equally suspicious of the outcome, which she said appears to have been manipulated. She described the entire process this way: “It was like bizarro.”

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