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Leon Schools Leaders Defend Construction Contracts

Leon Schools Leaders Defend Construction Contracts

By: Andy AlcockEmail | WCTV.Tv

A few years ago, several construction projects were done at Griffin Middle School.

Three projects were each done for just under $2-million
One of them was in July, 2010.

A second one was done with the same company the following October and then a third in April, 2011.

“That has been a cost savings to be able to do that,” said Leon County Schools Board Chair Forrest Van Camp.

District leaders say while there’s no bidding in selecting the company, there is a competitive, multi-faceted process to award those maximum price contracts.

The awarded management team then takes competitive bidding for the actual work.

However, under Florida law, it states contracts of $2-million and above must be competitively bid.

After looking at the Griffin deals, the Florida Auditor General’s March, 2012 Report said the district didn’t always get construction services by following Florida law.

“There is a process that we did follow,” said Leon County School District Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills. “It wasn’t in our policies, but in state statute,” she said.

And following the Auditor General’s report, the practice continued of awarding the just under $2-million contracts.

Two were awarded at Killearn Lakes, two at Gilchrist and three at Kate Sullivan, all elementary schools.

All of those under $2-million contracts were reviewed by staff, submitted by Superintendent Jackie Pons and approved by the school board.

In a recent review of the practice, the district’s own accountant noted there was no policy for it.

“We may need to have a better documentated trail on how we’re making those decisions,” said Van Camp. “Looking back on the decisions we’ve made, I feel comfortable with them,” he said.

On advice of his attorney, Superintendent Jackie Pons has declined our request for an interview.

Documents from a group of “concerned citizens” have prompted a review of information about Leon County Schools and superintendent Jackie Pons.

WCTV received a binder from the group with about 85 pages of documents inside questioning if Pons broke state law by avoiding competitive bidding on 12 different construction contracts for 6 different county schools, by keeping the cost just below two million dollars.

If a project costs above that amount, Florida law requires the contract go to competitive bidding.

The FDLE confirmed to WCTV that it has also received the binder and is reviewing the material.

The Florida Department of Education has also reviewed the information and says it is not taking any further action at this time.

The school board signs off on construction projects.

One board member says she would be shocked if the information was correct.

“There’s committee review and all kinds of things that happen along the way. It’s fully vetted by the time it gets to the senior management of the district. It then ultimately goes to our council to review the contracts, and then reaches the board,” Leon County Schools Board Member Dee Dee Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said it is concerning that the information states the contracts are priced so close to the two million dollar threshold.

“Should I have asked the staff to sign off on the rationale for keeping this under the two million dollar limit and not putting it out to a bid as follows? Yes. And should we perhaps move it off of the consent agenda for a while to make sure that we’re fully vetting these things in a public venue and transparency? Perhaps. I think those are the questions that this board needs to address now,” she said.

The documents also question if the contracts were awarded as political favors to Pons’ campaign sponsors.

Leon County Schools issued the statement below late Tuesday afternoon.

“In December 2013, information of alleged construction and other irregularities was provided to the Superintendent by a district administrator. Over the next few months an in-depth analysis was conducted by staff, outside lawyers, and an independent accounting firm. To date, reports have been completed by attorneys Robert Sniffen and Ron Meyer and the audit firm of Thomas Howell Ferguson. No fraud, criminal activity, unethical conduct or personal gain was found. In March 2014, the district also learned that these same allegations were provided to the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All related reports have been given to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and are also included with this statement. This matter is currently open and still under review.”

School board president, Forrest Van Camp said all board members have received a copy of the review Leon County Schools conducted but have not yet discussed it publically in a meeting.

“I am not aware of any deliberate means to circumvent the bidding process,” Van Camp said.

The State Auditor’s office sent WCTV a statement saying, “We are aware of the letter dated February 26th from “Concerned Leon County School Board Employees and Citizens of Leon County” and the notebook of documents. We will give the matters addressed in the notebook of documents appropriate consideration in our financial and operational audit of the Leon County District School Board for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2014. Our audit fieldwork is currently underway.”

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