State panel considers investigating school district
By Sherri C. Ranta
A proposed takeover of construction and a grand jury or special prosecutor's investigation into building practices of Miami-Dade County schools are under consideration by a state-appointed oversight board.
The recommendations stem from an audit of the district's construction division commissioned by the oversight board - formally known as the Miami-Dade School District Land Advisory and Facilities Maintenance Operations Board - and the district school board.
"We have not taken action," said oversight board chairman Ed Easton, owner of a local real estate company. "We received the report verbally last month and the backup late last week. The game plan is to give everyone a chance to digest the information."
The oversight board, Mr. Easton said, plans to meet with newly appointed Superintendent Rudy Crew before deciding whether to adopt recommendations that include petitioning the state for a takeover of school construction, planning, renovations and capital maintenance by the oversight board or another independent authority.
Mr. Crew, former chancellor of New York City Schools, on July 1 officially begins work as the Miami-Dade's superintendent.
Release of the forensic report April 28 created controversy as school board members demanded evidence to support its findings. Auditors from Miami's Lewis B. Freeman & Partners, a forensic accounting firm, found a "complete lack of organization, communication, professionalism and waste," according to the report.
"We did encounter some district staff members who are well-intentioned, dedicated and interested in doing the right thing;" the report states, "however they exist in an environment that perpetuates mediocrity, unaccountability and rewards the undeserving.
Among their preliminary findings:
No one person or district agency stands accountable for the plethora of mismanagement that has cost district taxpayers at least $100 million in wasted capital funds.
An increase in the use of design-build contracts eliminates meaningful checks and balances and is open to a selection process favoring certain firms.
Six firms: Spillis Candela & Partners, Wolfberg/Alvarez & Partners, Ronald E. Frazier & Associates, Post Buckley Schuh, MIA Consultants and Management Result, were cited as favored third-party vendors with three consecutive years of work totaling $10.6 million in awards despite poor previous performance.
The FBI took interest in the findings in May, requesting names of six district employees - whose identities have not been made public - cited as possibly being involved in "malfeasance/misfeasance" - misconduct/wrongdoing - in office.
FBI Miami spokesperson Judy Orihuela said the oversight board turned the names over to the bureau but an investigation has not been opened.
Mr. Freeman said this week he stands by his firm's audit.
Since the release of the report in late April, the firm has compiled an additional 652-page back-up report documenting its observations and findings.
"We hope that this will satisfy the oversight board as to the duties they asked us to carry out," Mr. Freeman said. "We would also appreciate the balance of our payment that was authorized by the oversight committee and held up by [current Superintendent of Schools Merrett] Stierheim."
The firm, he said, has received half of its contracted $50,000 fee from the school district and the oversight board.
Mr. Stierheim in a May 10 memo to the school board, with copies to the governor, legislative delegation, inspector general and board attorney, rejected the audit.
"In my opinion, this exercise was poorly conceived, even more poorly managed and executed and of very little value to the school board, its hard-working staff, or the advisory board."
He also criticizes the board's handling of the allegations of employee misconduct.
Any suspicion of wrongdoing, Mr. Stierheim said, should be turned over to the district's Inspector General Herbert Cousins. Mr. Cousins, he said, is totally independent from the district superintendent and the school board.
The entire audit, Mr. Stierheim said, is about maligning the school district and eroding public confidence. "I have personally initiated investigations with the IG and the public corruption units at Metro [police department]. I wouldn't hesitate."
The school district's chief auditor, Allen Vann, Office of Management and Compliance Audits, also questions the audit.
In a June 9 memo to Mr. Stierheim, Mr. Vann writes "the conclusions in the report are not representative of current conditions."
The forensic audit, his memo states, focused on two schools, Miami Northwestern Senior High School opened in 1994 and Felix Varela Senior High School opened in 2000.
Mr. Stierheim was asked to take over as superintendent in October 2001.
"It is our opinion, "Mr. Vann wrote, "that the recommendations are based on editorial comments that are not supported by factual statements or evidence."