A recent internal audit found that Chesterfield County Public Schools employees violated state procurement law during the transformation of the former Clover Hill High School building into the county’s Career and Technical Center @ Hull from October 2011 to April 2012.
The report, dated March 31, concluded that the staff had not complied with competitive selection procedures required by the Virginia Public Procurement Act during the project’s pre-design work phase. A violation would be a Class 1 misdemeanor, but county officials consider it unlikely there would be any prosecution.
The procurement law spells out policies for dealing with nongovernmental sources so localities can obtain “high-quality goods and services at reasonable cost in a fair and impartial manner with avoidance of any impropriety or appearance of impropriety.”
School Board member John Erbach of the Dale District on Thursday called the findings “troubling.”
“I don’t think there was any intent here, but I do think we need to do a better job. There wasn’t clear oversight in the past by the school division, and this board is going to take ownership of the solution,” Erbach said.
The audit, conducted by the county’s internal auditing department, was one of two major reviews of school construction projects that triggered the launch of a comprehensive overhaul of the division’s operational performance that was announced this week.
In the first report, released Nov. 24, 2014, auditors focused on construction contract files for the renovations of Watkins Elementary, Midlothian Middle, Midlothian High and the Career and Technical Center @ Hull. They found that project documents had been misfiled and that original files and bid information had not been maintained.
“There are several opportunities for improvement to internal control procedures to better provide reasonable assurance of achieving effective and efficient operations, reliable financial and performance reporting, or compliance with applicable laws and regulations,” the 2014 report said.
The auditors also noted that school construction staff had “not received a formal training in the Virginia Public Procurement Act.”
Chesterfield resident Brenda Stewart, whose call to the county’s Fraud, Waste and Abuse Hotline last summer prompted the most recent audit, said sloppiness and mistakes by staff are not her immediate main concern.
“It’s the top managers (of the school division) that grow a toxic culture. When you have repeated systematic mistakes growing from that, it will deliver the death knell to this system,” she said.
Stewart said that one year ago she had flagged several irregularities in her review of documents relating to the transition of the former high school to the county’s newest technical center.
“By omitting certain facts they had created a false timeline. So I did a new timeline with all the facts,” Stewart said.
She said meetings with school board members to discuss her findings led to no action and that a letter to the Internal Audit Office remained unanswered.
“By the end of July I had lost my patience, and I contacted the fraud hotline,” she said.
The auditors took action and focused mainly on procurements for the Career and Technical Center @ Hull project from 2009 to 2013.
They found that after an initial approval from the School Board, the Richmond-based architectural firm BCWH began pre-design work at the old high school in November 2011 — with “no documentation of a vendor procurement contract, scope of work and deliverables or price” until finalization of the contract more than seven months later, the auditors found, calling it a violation of state procurement law. The company was paid $112,481 for its work during that time.
A $2 million contract was dated May 14, 2012, and stamped June 12, 2012, but there was no date establishing when the contract became effective.
School officials say that the issues noted in the first audit were acknowledged as division leaders worked through the school construction management plan developed in May 2015.
“It was understood that as we worked to review and enhance processes as a result of the management plan, that other issues may be identified,” schools spokesman Tim Bullis said in an email Thursday.
As part of the plan, the School Board approved the transfer of school construction purchasing efforts to the county government’s purchasing office.
“Employees most familiar with the procurement act should be the staff members directly involved in the procurement process,” Bullis said.
County spokeswoman Susan Pollard said that “the transition of the schools construction procurement function to the county’s Purchasing Department” will be complete in July.
“We look forward to working with the school system to implement effective and appropriate procurement management of school construction projects,” Pollard said.
Bullis said that additionally, the construction office has gone through a comprehensive file review and corrective actions have been put into place regarding signatures and line-item responsibility.
“A new organizational structure has been developed to include an effort to bring on board an external construction management team,” he said.
On Monday, school officials rolled out a proposed reorganizational plan that would streamline the division’s operations and reduce long-term costs. The plan would result in the elimination of as many as 40 positions in the facilities and construction department during the next two years.
Much of the plan was developed under the leadership of Nita Mensia-Joseph, the division’s new chief operations officer.
School Board member Erbach said that Mensia-Joseph has “some good ideas that will help solve some of these problems.”
Erbach said the board hopes to see results from some of these changes within two years.