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FL State Audit Slams Dade Schools

Mon July 08, 2002 - National Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

The Florida auditor general slammed the Miami-Dade County school district in a report on its construction department recently, saying it paid contractors for uncompleted work, wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and put unqualified people in top jobs.

The auditor general looked at capital construction operations between July 2000 and April 2002, during which the School Board awarded more than $227 million in contracts. A preliminary draft of the audit, delivered to schools Superintendent Merrett Stierheim for a response, found that:

--The district spent $7.8 million to complete projects left unfinished by contractors and architects/engineers who were usually paid in full anyway.

--Contractors who failed to finish projects did not lose their prequalification approval to bid on new contracts.

--In at least two cases, the district did not monitor completed projects to identify problems that fell within the warranty period.

Changing Plans

--In its standard contract with architectural and engineering firms, the district promises not to fine companies for construction-change orders caused by errors or omissions in plans if the cost is less than 1.5 percent of the total project cost.

In a sample of 30 projects, the district was forced to pay $6.2 million to correct omissions from plans and $2.6 million to correct plan errors.

The contract entitled it to recoup only $341,577 from the design firms that made the mistakes.

Making matters worse, auditors said district staff only bothered to collect $16,709.

The auditor general wrote that such a contract "appears to benefit only the architects/engineers and their professional liability carriers. It was not evident what public benefit was served by the errors and omissions allowances."

It also said that four other school boards and two colleges it looked at had no such contractor-friendly provisions and recommended the school district stop giving them.

The district’s chief auditor, George Balsa, said the problem "has been a concern of mine for a long time" and that he has pointed to the same problem in prior internal audits.

Buying Materials

--The district failed to directly purchase construction materials, which on a dozen sampled projects would have saved $1.8 million in sales taxes because it is a nonprofit agency.

Balsa said the district had tried directly purchasing materials, but abandoned the practice because of the paperwork time, storage costs and potential liability.

The auditor general also reviewed the job description and minimum qualifications for 267 workers involved in planning, construction, facilities and maintenance. It found a host of problems:

--In at least five instances, the district did not verify work experience that qualified employees for positions.

Several staffers exaggerated their résumés or gained "experience" through self-employment.

--The district does not require staff in top positions to maintain active architect or engineer licenses, so nothing ensures the employees will "remain current with technical and professional standards."

--Twenty-nine of 34 employees in a sample are not performing tasks consistent with their job description.

Some who hold the title of construction coordinator are providing tech support, reviewing elevator inspections, overseeing fire safety or performing other duties.

--At least five unnamed high-ranking employees appointed by former Superintendent Roger Cuevas did not meet minimum qualification requirements for their positions, including a basic college degree.

"Given the significant size of the district’s capital construction program, it is in the best interests of the district and its stakeholders to maintain a highly qualified staff," the auditors noted.

Internal Review

In contrast to the stinging rebuke by state auditors, the district’s internal auditors recently completed a separate review of 16 construction projects, saying delays are "an area of concern" and the system "may not at times receive the quality of work from the construction, design and building communities" for which it is paying.

The legislature-imposed oversight board also has focused on the district’s facilities department, criticizing its construction and maintenance operations as deeply flawed.

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