Broward County

Audit: Schools can't prove $15M hurricane cleanup expense

Broward school officials cannot prove that $15 million in federal disaster aid they got for cleanup and repairs connected to hurricanes Katrina and Wilma paid for what it was supposed to, an audit has found.

Expenses submitted by the Broward School District for the 2005 storms, and reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were "unreasonable, unsupported, unnecessary or excessive,'' according to the federal audit, released this week.

The district claimed $317,000 in excessive "contract charges for roof repairs,'' labor and other expenses, the audit found. How another $14.7 million allocated for debris removal and emergency preparation was used could not be verified because the district did not have the required documentation, such as canceled checks, contracts and bills.

The audit by the Department of Homeland Security, the umbrella agency for FEMA, recommended the Broward School Board repay the money, though the amount returned could be far less than $15 million if the district provides documentation showing the expenses reimbursed were eligible. The final decision will be up to FEMA, which has until Dec. 20 to respond to the audit.

The federal government will work with Florida emergency management officials and the school board "to review the recommendations and determine the appropriate course of action,'' said FEMA spokewoman Mary Hudak. "As always, we remain committed to working with our state and local partners to ensure that any taxpayer dollars we disburse are used as intended: to help families and communities recover."

The federal government wants every piece of paper associated with the school system's FEMA claims, including timecards, checks, license numbers and receipts, said Jerry Graziose, the district's director of safety.

Thousands of documents have been submitted, but others were still incomplete or missing at the time of the audit, Graziose said. District staff are digging up more paperwork, and proof for claims is at least 50 percent complete, he said.

"This is not just one document. It's a paper monster," said Graziose, who oversees the district's FEMA claims. "But I believe we're going to provide most of it."

Any money that would have to be repaid could pose a hardship for Broward Schools, which did not have enough money this year to replace outdated school buses, decrepit cafeterias or obsolete technology. Last month, the board agreed to raise property taxes as part of its $3.4 billion spending plan.

Graziose says money owed to the district from other claims could offset any funds that have to be paid back to FEMA.

The audit is another blow to the district, already rocked by scandal. Two board members have been arrested, and a statewide grand jury investigating public corruption is taking testimony in secret from district employees.

The district received $61 million from FEMA for disaster-related expenses after Katrina and Wilma. The FEMA audit looked at $15.7 million of those costs submitted for reimbursement, and found problems with 95 percent of them.

Among the charges questioned:

The district awarded a $1 million contract for roof repairs of portable classrooms at $12.39 per square foot but billed FEMA up to $18.42 per square foot. "We question $195,419 of costs claimed under the projects as excessive,'' auditors wrote. They did not identify the contractor or the location of the work.

The district submitted a claim for nearly $69,000 to remove and fix roofs on portable classrooms that had been improperly installed by an unidentified contractor at four schools. "Because the School Board did not properly monitor and inspect the roof repairs made by the original contractor and did not obtain a warranty for such work, the School Board had to hire another contractor to remove and repair the improperly installed roofs,'' the audit said.

FEMA paid the district $50,600 in storm-related overtime costs for employees of the facilities department, but the hours on the timesheets did not match payroll records. "Therefore, we question'' the expense, auditors wrote.

The audit follows one last year, done by the district's own auditors, that questioned the district's spending and oversight after Wilma. That one caused an uproar even before it was final.

Auditors sent School Board members a draft report in July 2009 finding that C&B Services of Texas performed unnecessary work and submitted inflated and falsified bills for repairing 84 portable classrooms. It recommended the district demand a $765,608 refund from AshBritt Inc., which later claimed that it, and not C&B, was the general contractor.

According to the audit, the no-bid contract for the portables came about after then-schools construction chief Michael Garretson met in November 2005 with Ashbritt's lobbyist Ron Book, one of Broward's most politically connected figures.

Instead of being outraged by the findings, some board members lashed out at the auditors for making the report public before it was final.

In a six-page memo to Superintendent Jim Notter, board member Stephanie Kraft, who has since been arrested and charged in an unrelated corruption scandal, objected that draft audits do not present the side of the department under scrutiny and can be harmful to the school district's reputation.